Most helpful critical review
5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Hopefully a better bio will come along
on April 5, 2007
I read "Jim Brown" a few weeks after finishing Mike Callahan's "Johnny U". Like "Johnny U", I gave this 3 stars, partly out of nostalgia. Both books have gaping flaws and those probably are even more apparent to someone who hadn't lived through these players' glory years. Unitas, in many ways, was the last of a certain kind of player--one who said little, played hard, and seemd to go along with management. These were the guys who lived next door to their fans and had off season jobs (usually in some sort of sales), because they and their families needed the money. Brown was the beginning of very different era. He left the game at his prime and spent his career being very outspoken about football, and was willingly to confront Coach Paul Brown. The elder Brown was instrumental in developing the modern game of football--he approached the game in a studied, almost academic manner and developed the foundations of the modern playbook. He also was rigid and authoritarian and by Jim Brown's time, his competitors were catching up with him. Although the racial integration of football had begun before Jim Brown's time, he was the first player to speak out about racial issues and he did it in a way that didn't necessarily resonate with white fans. Brown was arguably the best running back of his time and, perhaps, of all time. He was a gifted athlete who lettered in lacrosse (and considered his lacrosse coach to be his real mentor) and easily mastered new sports like golf. Brown left football for Hollywood and after a short but lucrative career in movies, it appears that he's continued to prosper. Going back to his football days, Brown has gotten in trouble with the law, mostly because of violent acts against other people. He's also had a long-term interest in troubled youth and has been involved in numerous civil rights and community based works since his football days.
Brown's life has had many contradictions--he was a civil rights advocate, but supported Nixon (who famously exploited racial divisions) for president. He has worked to be a constructive figure in public life, but has had repeated scandals involving women in his private life. He was the prototype for many modern professional football players, yet he has been bitterly critical of the way in which later players have played the game and participated in society. Freeman attempts to address Brown's character flaws and contradictions, as well as his accomplishments, both in football and away from the game. The result is mixed, at best. The book suffers from rather superficial research and a tendency toward pedantic and shallow attempts at sociological and psychological explanations for Brown's behavior. Freeman brings in "experts" on violence and sport psychology whose expertise mostly consists of boilerplate soundbites. There are any number of people who have more expertise with regard to these topics and many of them are well known to the media. Freeman's explorations of Cleveland media seem limited and he appears not to have contacted any of Cleveland's sports writing/media figures and apparently ignored the morgue of Cleveland's afternoon paper, which was the dominant newspaper in Brown's time. The book also relies on very few of Brown's contemporaries. Despite access to federal records of Brown's economic development program from the 1960s, Freeman has little to say about how well it worked or what it did. The writing isn't as cliche-ridden as Callahan's Johnny U, but even for this genre, it's not very inspiring. Freeman tends to talks at us about Brown's motives and his life,rather than just letting the story tell itself. It's clear in the afterward that Brown was unresponsive to Freeman's requests to be interviewed and may have kept others away from Freeman. On the other hand, it's clear that he could have dug deeper with the material that was available. Some of his observations are simply laughable--Frank Ryan, the famously indecisive (and poorly protected) quarterback gets the kind of laudatory treatment that few Cleveland fans of the era would have given Ryan. The book also has sloppy errors, such as giving an incorrect history of the name of Miami University, the "mother of coaches" and a school that should be well known to sportswriters. Freeman opens by characterizing Brown as the greatest football player of all time, something even a native Clevelander would hesitate to say. Later, he describes Bill Belichick as the greatest coach of all time--a point that Cleveland fans, in particular, would dispute. Comments like these are made with little justification. There are other comparisons which attempt to compare Brown with other Black actors of his generation that fall flat in terms of knowing those actors' work and their appeal to different audiences. The book could have used a decent editor, particularly someone who knows football and Brown's era.
Jim Brown was a towering figure in his time. Football was gaining ground in popularity and the decline of Cleveland's once great baseball team created an opening that Brown easily filled. Fans were disappointed with his sudden departure from the game and his abandonment of an otherwise lackluster team. There's much drama in his story and the book will bring back memories for people who will tolerate its shortcomings. The story of Brown's life after football tends to meander and it's never really clear how managed to get along after the film roles ended. Freeman also takes a lot of Brown's community work at face value and makes claims about Brown's role in dealing with urban problems in L.A. that seem overly generous and which lack any real documentation. I don't doubt Brown's intentions or his willingness to do things that other people might not consider. I just don't think Freeman really gives us a full picture. Given the dearth of written material on Brown's life and his importance to the "modern" game of football, this is better than nothing, but hopefully, someone will do another book that truly does justice to this great football player and interesting, controversial man.