The Audacity of Certain Black Ballers

by Mark Reynolds

16 July 2009

Lebron James in a Nike ad (partial) 
Lebron James on the Vogue cover (partial)

Lebron James on the Vogue cover (partial)

The First Black Athlete to Parlay On-the-field Stardom into Pop Entertainment Stardom

Up until Brown, if you saw a black sports star in a movie, it was as himself in either a walk-on role or as the star of a biopic (The Jackie Robinson Story, The Joe Louis Story). After Brown, and as pro sports athletes became more recognized in American pop culture thanks in large part to broader television exposure, crossover opportunities for black stars became easier to pursue.

On the strength of those two roles, Brown established himself as Hollywood’s first black action hero. He followed them up with a string of interchangeable roles in interchangeable blaxploitation flicks (Three the Hard Way, Black Gunn, Slaughter and its sequel Slaughter’s Big Ripoff which featured Brown as a Righteous Black Brother standing up for the community, beating down The Man, and accommodating the various young ladies who came his way.

His was such an iconic presence in black pulp cinema that a generation later, he starred in the blaxploitation homage Original Gangstas (1996) and the send-up I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988). Sprinkled throughout his oeuvre are mainstream potboilers like …Tick…Tick…Tick… (1970) and various projects that barely registered at the box office.

Thus did Brown become the first black athlete to parlay on-the-field stardom into pop entertainment stardom. Paul Robeson briefly played pro football in the ‘20s after excelling at Rutgers and before beginning his movie career, but the game was still in its infancy then. Later, Woody Strode, one of those two L.A. Rams who desegregated the NFL in ’46, became a member of John Ford’s stock company in the late ‘50s, fought Kirk Douglas to the death in a memorable scene from Spartacus (1960), and picked up supporting movie roles through the mid-‘90s. But Strode’s football career was unremarkable aside from his one year with the Rams. Boxer Jack Johnson fancied himself an entertainer, among other pursuits, after his boxing days, but we’ll always remember him primarily for what he did in the ring.

Up until Brown, if you saw a black sports star in a movie, it was as himself in either a walk-on role or as the star of a biopic (The Jackie Robinson Story, The Joe Louis Story). After Brown, and as pro sports athletes became more recognized in American pop culture thanks in large part to broader television exposure, crossover opportunities for black stars became easier to pursue.

The next big step was OJ Simpson, who parlayed his football success and TV-friendly good looks into a side career as a pitchman (famously running through airports for Hertz Rent-a-Cars) and then actor (beginning with a brief role in the first chapter of Roots (1977). Simpson was no great shakes as a thespian, but the success of his commercials helped cement the idea that black sports stars had brand recognition that translated easily and well to the larger consumer market.

No one made more of that opening than Michael Jordan, that rare commodity who was the center of not one but two iconic ad campaigns, for Nike (with a mighty assist from director Spike Lee) and Gatorade (“Be Like Mike”). He’s still at it, starring with Charlie Sheen and Cuba Gooding, Jr. for Hanes ads in recent years. Jordan became the gold standard for capitalizing on athletic excellence within pop culture; since his day only Tiger Woods has been as ubiquitous a pitchman among athletes of color. The distance we’ve come from Robinson hawking Chock Full o’Nuts coffee in the ‘50s, and black A-list jocks hawking virtually anything under the sun today, is astounding, and Brown remains a central figure in that lineage.

He’s central not only for his performances on and off the field, but also because of his political activism.  Brown’s activist work dates back to his playing days, when he and other black ballers formed the Black Economic Union, to advocate for greater economic development and entrepreneurship within the black community. Brown also convened the group to support Muhammad Ali after his heavyweight title was stripped due to his refusal to serve in Vietnam.

Today, the BEU stands out less for any achievements it accomplished than for the fact that it’s virtually the only instance of an ongoing body of black stars working for a progressive cause beyond the playing field. It’s not been lost on anyone, especially Brown, that there hasn’t been that same out-front involvement in the issues of the day from most of the black stars since the ‘60s. Brown has continued his activist work with his organization Amer-I-Can, which has worked to end gang violence and help gangbangers start productive lives in L.A. and across the country since the ‘80s.

Linking all three aspects of Brown’s life in the public eye, as footballer, movie star, and crusader for equality and justice (not to mention a couple of run-ins with the law over domestic incidents) is the image of Brown as a strong, self-reliant black man who would not be beaten down or turned away from his goal. Of course, for some that’s an image only a couple of steps removed from Brown as the embodiment of natural, unthinking, brute black force. Either way, it’s an archetype almost as old as America itself, and the fact remains that while other athletes have eclipsed Brown’s marks and outshone him in some pop culture arenas, none have come close to his measure on all three levels.

One would think that LeBron James has that chance. The athletic achievements go without saying. He’s got the pop culture name recognition going, as well. He can even trade on the big black buck image for laughs, as on that June 2008 Vogue cover shot with Gisele Bundchen that many considered insulting (as others did for a 2002 Sports Illustrated cover depiction of a bare-chested Charles Barkley breaking out of chains). But no one is mistaking him for a fire-breathing rabblerouser.

Like many athletes under contract with Nike (Exhibit A: Michael Jordan), James has typically sidestepped calls to press the shoemaker on its Chinese sweatshop practices. And like virtually all athletes of his generation, he’s not vocally outfront on any social issue. This isn’t to say that he doesn’t give back on a smaller, less visible scale, or that he hasn’t written a couple of nice-sized checks over the years. But true activism is more than just an “NBA – Where Caring Happens” self-congratulatory feel-good promo. It’s personal time, commitment and involvement.

Perhaps, as some have argued, it’s the difference between the two eras that accounts for the difference between Brown-style activism and the retreat from that level of involvement since then. The social temperature of our times, highly charged as it is in many ways, is nowhere near that of the ‘60s, in which seemingly everyone felt compelled to make a stand. It’s unrealistic, in that respect, to expect athletes to be any different from the rest of society, then or now. It may also be unrealistic to expect that athletes, by dint of their exposure in the media and influence over young fans (not to mention seven- and eight-figure incomes), should be involved; Barkley’s best-known commercial is a Nike spot in which he declared that athletes should not automatically be expected to serve as role models.

Rightly or wrongly, many fellow blacks continue to hold black star athletes to high expectations of participation in social uplift. It has been that way since Jackie Robinson, when being a black ballplayer was a political statement in and of itself, even if athletes now have more flexibility not to choose the path of sports star-as-social activist. But Jim Brown made that choice, and neither his football career nor his film career suffered for it.

He bridges two distinct eras – back when black stars were expected to be part of the struggle in some way, and now that they have the freedom to merely be stars – and sits comfortably in both of them. That’s the true measure of his accomplishments, and 45 years after the fact, those are the footsteps James walks in today, far outweighing even the hopes and dreams of long-suffering Cleveland sports fans.


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