BEREA, Ohio — Jim Brown stood alongside Muhammad Ali in the 1960s when the boxing champion protested going to Vietnam. An activist for 50 years, the Hall of Fame running back has never shied away from fighting for anything he's believed in.
Brown has been the rare high-profile athlete unafraid to challenge or call for social change. Now, during a time of racial tension and unrest, he has found hope, encouraged by what he's seen from some prominent sports figures.
On Friday, the 78-year-old Cleveland Browns great praised NBA superstar LeBron James and NFL players for speaking out and "bringing attention" to high-profile cases in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York in which black men had fatal encounters with law enforcement.
"The thing that I feel most about is the emerging of young players that are intelligently protesting what they feel are injustices, their willingness to step up and recognize that there has to be some changes in the methodology of engagement with citizens and police," he said.
James and Cavaliers teammate Kyrie Irving were among a group of players who wore "I Can't Breathe" T-shirts this week in support of the family of Eric Garner, who died in July after a New York police officer placed him in a chokehold while trying to arrest him. Five members of the St. Louis Rams ran onto the field before a Nov. 30 game with their hands raised in a gesture of solidarity for protesters and the family of Michael Brown, killed outside St. Louis.
Grand juries in both cities declined to indict either officer, sparking nationwide protests.
To Brown, the protests by James, Kobe Bryant and others suggest a sense of perspective and maturity.
"One of the things that I've always not liked is the modern players have always concentrated on dancing in the end zone and BS-ing when serious things were going on in this country that needed to be changed," Brown said. "So my opinion is that when these young people stand up and risk their careers, that's a good sign for everything and all of us. They have the power of bringing attention to the issues."
Brown has been critical of athletes for not using their fame as a platform to address on social issues. He understands the power James has and believes the 29-year-old's courage to step forward can inspire.
"I think a person like Mr. James is showing himself to be a thinking leader," Brown said, "and that's awesome because it takes your high-profile athletes to call attention to and step out so players can follow that lead and create the collective voice."
Brown said it's imperative for athletes to lead by example.
"We make a lot of money, we get a lot of notoriety and we're living a great life," said Brown, a special adviser with the Browns. "But we realize that there are poor people in this country, underprivileged people and patterns that are used by the system that need to be addressed and looked at it in many ways."
A three-time MVP, Brown retired from football following the 1957 season, leaving at the peak of his career to pursue an acting career. However, he didn't go to Hollywood simply to make movies. He founded the Amer-I-Can program to help black kids and has been a long-time crusader for racial justice. He's worked with gang members in Los Angeles.
Brown also has had his share of problems. He's been arrested on various charges and spent four months in jail in 2000 after refusing counseling for a domestic violence charge. Brown remains engaged with civic leaders and believes change, though slow, can take place. But it will take insight and dedication.
"Regardless of what else we do, young black men in this country have to understand that they have a responsibility. They cannot be the enemy in their own neighborhoods and usurp the effort of good people that are trying to make things work."