For decades, Jim Brown has served sportswriters as a kind of shorthand for the type of activist an athlete should be. Just yesterday, Brown was upheld as an inspiration in William C. Rhoden’s farewell column in the The New York Times; name-dropped for helping receiver Josh Gordon return from his indefinite suspension for weed and alcohol (even NFL commissioner Roger Goodell got in on the action); and cited by The Undefeated as an example of when athletes “were outspoken on the country’s problems, particularly the status of African-Americans.” Meanwhile, one SportsCenter segment had Brown blessing Carmelo Anthony’s recent activism, while another was devoted to Brown calling in to praise Jordan’s $2 million donations to address police-involved shootings.
Brown is an emblematic figure who’s presented the way he is because he stands, as much as anyone now living, at the intersection of the athletic and political. He is also a man who has been accused of and investigated for beating or raping women at least six times over several decades, a period of time spanning from the 1960s through 2000. Of those cases, three resulted in charges that were tried before juries; the three other cases were dropped when the women said they didn’t want to pursue charges or witnesses stopped cooperating. He admitted in his own memoir to slapping women, and in another case blamed violent outbursts on his wife having her period. He was found guilty once—of vandalism—and jailed when he refused to attend domestic violence counseling ordered by the judge in that case. Here is a history of that violence, done with the help of a CNN timeline on his life.
Then-18-year-old Brenda Ayers says Brown assaulted her in a Cleveland Howard Johnson motel. Brown was charged with assault and battery. According to an Associated Press report at the time, Ayers said Brown “plied her with whiskey, slapped her face, hip and stomach and forced her to have sex relations with him on two occasions.” She broke down while testifying in court, saying Brown called her days before testifying asking, “Why was I doing this to him?” Brown denied having sex with her and assaulting her; his defense lawyer called it a shakedown plot for money. A Cleveland jury found him not guilty. Ayers later sued Brown for paternity and lost and sued for civil damages, the latter of which she asked to be dismissed.
Neighbors of Brown’s in Hollywood hear an argument and call the police. When police arrived, they found Brown’s then-girlfriend, model Eva Bohn-Chin, 22, semi-conscious beneath the balcony of Brown’s second-floor apartment. Brown was charged with assault with intent to commit murder, felony battery on a peace officer, and obstructing justice. From Pete Dexter’s essential 1981 profile of Brown:
“The police is just another cat,” he said. The first sheriff’s deputy who came through the front door that day also went through the closet door.
“Listen,” he said, “you got to have something, goin’ out dealing with 270-pound linemen for a living. You quit playing, but that doesn’t just go away.”
The charge of assault with intent to commit murder was dropped when Eva Bohn-Chin told police she had fallen trying to get out when they showed up.
The charges by the cop were changed to resisting a deputy. Brown was fined $300 and that marked the beginning of his problems with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.
“Those suckers knew a little about my head,” he said, “and they waited for me to do something so they could shoot me. For two months they came by most every night to tell me to turn down my music.”
Battery charges are dropped against Brown due to a “lack of witnesses,” according to a report from Jet magazine. A deputy city attorney told the magazine that Brown was accused of “beating and then throwing two women, Claudia Anne Lemary and Carol Virginia Williams, both 22, out of his apartment and down a flight of stairs, allegedly because they refused to perform a sex act together.” From Jet’s recap:
During pre-trial proceedings, the two alleged victims, however, appeared with Brown and left with him, indicating all was forgiven, if indeed anything had occurred. At the trial, Miss Williams answered five questions put to her by Adajian before her attorney advised her to remain silent. She alleged she was injured at Brown’s apartment when “I fell down a flight of stairs.” But when asked if Brown was responsible for the fall, she purred, “Not to my knowledge.” Miss Lemary failed to appear.
Brown is charged with raping and assaulting a 33-year-old woman in his home. The woman testified in court that she was friends with Brown, who invited over to his home one day, but that when she tried to leave, he beat her, then raped her with the help of his then-girlfriend, Carol Moses, 23. Moses told a grand jury that she got in a physical fight with the woman, who clearly had been beaten, after the woman “made a lesbian advance toward her,” and that Brown had tried to break up that fight, the Los Angeles Times reported. Brown told reporters, “This is ridiculous. Everybody is lying.”
The charges were dismissed by a judge, according to reports, due to “inconsistent testimony,” with changes in details such as whether Brown fully or partially penetrated her and whether he had tied her hands or forcibly held them. Research done since has shown that rape, like other traumatic events, takes a toll on a person’s memory, especially their memories of the event itself. This is why police now are advised to handle the interviews in sexual-assault cases differently than other crimes.
“We have a societal expectation that both the victim of a major crime and any witnesses to that crime ought to be able to remember with perfect clarity exactly what happened,” psychologist Rebecca Campbell told the Washington Post in 2014. “It is not an expectation that has any scientific merit.”
The year after this case, Brown told journalist Diane K. Shah that he was “very vulnerable and that “I don’t have much chance if someone wants to get me.”
Brown is arrested and charged with assaulting live-in girlfriend Debra Clark. Clark, 22, told police the fight was “about a jealousy thing that happened a few days ago,” the Los Angeles Times reported, and at one point she locked herself inside a bedroom with a gun. The charges were later dropped after Clark said she did not want Brown prosecuted. “It was definitely overdramatized,” Clark said afterward. If a telephone call goes to the police station and they arrive, naturally the media’s going to get into it. Basically, we had a lovers’ quarrel, and everything is fine now.”
Speaking to Shah, Brown said he probably will marry Clark but concedes he doesn’t know how to spell his future wife’s first name.
Brown’s memoir, Out of Bounds, comes out. In the book, he again said that Bohn-Chin fell from the balcony and that they had a “minor domestic dispute.” He did admit to slapping women, including Bohn-Chin, in the book. As quoted in a review in the Los Angeles Times:
“I have also slapped other women,” he wrote. “And I never should have, and I never should have slapped Eva, no matter how crazy we were at the time. I don’t think any man should slap a woman. In a perfect world, I don’t think any man should slap anyone. ... I don’t start fights, but sometimes I don’t walk away from them. It hasn’t happened in a long time, but it’s happened, and I regret those times. I should have been more in control of myself, stronger, more adult.”
Brown is charged with two misdemeanors, making terrorist threats against his wife and vandalism, after his Monique Brown called 911. The first officer to arrive to the scene later testified to seeing Brown’s wife, Monique, 25, looking nervous, shaken, and like she’s been crying. Monique Brown said she and her husband got a in a verbal fight after she confronted him about his cheating. At one point, she said, he told her “he was going to kill her by snapping her neck.”
Monique Brown went to the garage, Brown followed her, picked up a shovel and began attacking her car, leaving dents and breaking the windshield, the officer told the court. She went to their neighbors and called 911.
Operator: “Monique, do you need a paramedic?”
Monique: “No. He hasn’t hit me.”
Operator: “He didn’t hit you today?”
Monique: “Not today.”
Operator: “OK. But there is a history of domestic violence, right?”
Operator: “And he threatened to kill you today?”
During the trial, Monique Brown recanted her own statements to the police and said what she told 911 was misinterpreted. She said she told the dispatcher she had not been hit, but that those parts were in the section of 911 tape labeled “inaudible.” A jury found Brown guilty of vandalism for smashing the car with the shovel. He was sentenced to three years of probation, one year of domestic violence counseling, and 40 hours on a work crew or 400 hours community service.
Three years later, in an almost literally unbelievable story in USA Today, Monique Brown would mention her husband’s jail time due to this case in the same sentence as the incarcerations of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr., while Brown himself blamed the couple’s arguments on PMS, claimed to be a victim of political persecution, and assert that what happened that night was “the opposite of domestic violence.”
“In anger-management training, they teach you never to hit a person—hit an object,” he said. “That’s what they teach you.”
Brown is sentenced to six months in jail after he refused to attend domestic violence counseling as part of his sentence for smashing his wife’s car, the Los Angeles Times reported. Browns lawyer argued to the court that the counseling and other probation terms were “unconstitutional and dehumanizing.” Judge Judge Dale S. Fischer wasn’t swayed.
“The fact that Mr. Brown is refusing to get help with anger and violence only indicates to me the necessity for significant punishment,” Fischer said as she imposed the sentence.
Brown served less than four months of the sentence in 2002. When my colleague Drew Magary brought up the jail time with Brown in a 2009 interview, Brown said, “I chose to physically go to jail rather than take an assignment that was undignified to me.”
Brown, it should be noted, has beaten up men as well. While he was found not guilty of charges that he assaulted a West Hollywood man in 1969 after a traffic accident, in 1978 he was sentenced to one day in jail for beating and choking his golf partner, golf pro Frank Snow, over the placement of a ball.
Jim Brown is one of the greatest American athletes of all time and a genuinely important social figure who played crucial roles in the fight for civil rights and in opening up space for athletes to speak out as citizens. His part in the 1967 Cleveland summit that led to the Black Economic Union cannot be ignored. His ongoing work with inner-city gang members remains relevant. He continues to advocate for change.
These two images of Brown—champion of civil rights, abuser of women—are not in conflict. The dichotomy is if anything consistent with the research on domestic violence, which makes clear that abusers aren’t monsters every waking minute of their lives and can be, to the outside world, the most upstanding members of any community. Similarly, a rapist can be the exact picture of what’s considered a fine model citizen until getting caught (as shown by Brock Turner). You’ll rarely, though, see a journalist taking the time to unpack or even describe just what Brown has been accused of over the years while heaping praise on him for helping his fellow man. Instead, they act like it never happened.
This is especially damning coming from the same journalists and NFL office that cannot stop posturing in the the ongoing PR battle over who is the most ostentatiously worried over, and determined to do the right thing about, domestic violence. On Friday, the NFL news machine went into overdrive, determined to figure out by day’s end whether Ezekiel Elliott was responsible for the bruises posted on Instagram by his girlfriend. The NFL promised an investigation. The Cowboys were reported to be looking into what happened, too. Anonymous sources were cited, police reports were quoted, and statements were issued. In Elliott, the NFL and its credentialed mouthpieces all had a chance to show how much they care about domestic violence—insofar as it serves their public relations needs and the quest for content, respectively. Brown’s case is the opposite of Elliott’s, a situation where it benefits nobody to bring it up. So, for the most part, they don’t.
One of the few times it did come up was in 2014, after the video of Ray Rice punching his wife became public. Cleveland.com’s Mark Naymik reached out to the Browns about their most famous running back’s history. This was the response he got:
“As we said when we brought Jim back last year, we have seen his dedication and his commitment to positive change in the community,” the team said in a statement issued through spokesman Peter John-Baptiste. “His experience and perspective, especially with the valued benefit of time, can positively impact our organization as we continue to evolve and grow. We welcomed him back as a special adviser and appreciate his contributions.”
In other words, We don’t want to talk about it. This is that exact same attitude that the NFL allegedly was ending in regard to to violence against women.
Last year, in a lengthy interview with The MMQB (which dismissed all the investigations near the end with a quick “none of those charges were proved in court”), Brown spoke like a man who has gotten with the NFL PR program.
When you ask Brown how he would counsel young players on how to treat women, there is a pause. Then the laugh. “I know what you’re trying to get at,” he says. “There is no excuse for violence. There is never a justification for anyone to impose themselves on someone else. And it will always be incorrect when it comes to a man and a woman, regardless of what might have happened. You need to be man enough to take the blow. That is always the best way. Do not put your hands on a woman.”
Brown admits to nothing in the published piece. He doesn’t speak to how domestic violence is about more than just bruises, but exists on a continuum that includes psychological manipulation, isolation, and other forms of emotional abuse that keep the abused under control. Saying don’t hit women is a start, but it’s far from the only key to ending abuse. In The MMQB, it’s left to his wife, who once recanted her own statements to police, to say, implausibly, “There has never been any domestic violence in our home.”
None of this is to say that it’s time to write Brown out of history, or stop him from working with Josh Gordon on staying clean, or anything of the sort. None of it undoes the genuine good he has done for the world, or the progress he has helped secure. The search for a perfect hero is always a fruitless one, destined to end in disappointment at the realization that all human beings are, to varying degrees, imperfect.
But a discussion of the complexities of Brown’s life and legacy isn’t one today’s sports reporters seem to want to have; he has been classed as a hero, and so the villainous parts of his past go forgotten, or at least unremarked upon. On ESPN yesterday, Brown warned that “We are at a very dangerous time in this country” and insisted he was speaking for all of us—the black people, the white people, the poor people, the homeless. Did his everyone include the women of this country? The TV anchor didn’t ask.