Commentary

Jim Brown won't back down on Tiger

Originally Published: July 2, 2009
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

Apologize? Jim Brown isn't going to apologize.

"I was asked a question," he said when I spoke with him Wednesday. "I gave an answer."

[+] EnlargeJim Brown
AP Photo/David RichardJim Brown isn't afraid to speak his mind, and he ruffled Tiger Woods' feathers recently.

The question, posed by HBO's Bryant Gumbel, essentially asked why there aren't more prominent black athletes willing to do what Brown, Arthur Ashe, Jackie Robinson and Bill Russell did during and after the height of their influence: make stands, make change, make noise as social activists.

The answer was as blunt as the working end of Brown's walking cane.

He called out Tiger Woods.

He called out Michael Jordan.

"There are one or two individuals in this country that are black that have been put in front of us as an example," he told Gumbel. "But they're basically under a system that says, hey, they're not going to deal with certain things.

"Yes, that disappoints me because I know they both know better. Yeah, I know they both know better, OK? And I know they both can do better without hurting themselves."

But it was Woods who took the full force of another Brown verbal forearm shiver. First, Brown marveled at Woods' hyperintensity as an athlete. And then …

"He'll run you over, he'll kick your [butt], but as an individual for social change or any of that kind of [stuff] -- terrible … terrible," Brown told Gumbel.

The interview first aired June 23. Since then, Brown has been criticized for saying Woods' lone contribution was "teaching kids to play golf." In fact, the 14-acre Tiger Woods Learning Center campus in Southern California provided educational opportunities for more than 20,000 youth and families in 2008, and featured a growing college scholarship initiative. An outreach program called Tiger's Action Plan involved more than 250,000 children and teenagers and 10,000 teachers last year. And 75 grants were awarded to youth-based organizations worldwide in 2008.

So Woods' involvement with and commitment to his foundation is real and personal. But here's the question that counts: Does that make Brown wrong?

"It's easy to say I'll apologize to Tiger and go on and do what I'm going to do," Brown told me. "Charity is one thing. Change is another."

You can question the clumsiness of Brown's HBO comments, but you can't question his commitment to causes that matter. The man is 73 years old, and his walk is labored and stooped after 12,312 NFL rushing yards and 2,359 carries, but he remains on the front lines of activism. His work to prevent inner-city gang violence, to battle the decay of major inner-city school systems and to roar about the injustices brought against African-Americans, as well as the self-inflicted wounds brought upon themselves, is legendary.

Understand this: Brown isn't anti-Woods. "I've pulled for this kid every day," Brown said. "He's one of the greatest things I've seen in sports. This isn't like I'm coming out of the clear, blue sky trying to say something harmful about this kid."

And Brown doesn't dispute the sincerity of Woods' charitable work.

"He's doing things right," Brown said. "That's good. But that's not my aim."

Brown's aim is different. He isn't against learning centers. He's just more for doing what is sometimes uncomfortable, unpopular and unchartered. Safe -- and he considers the social footprints of Woods, Jordan and even Kobe Bryant the very definition of the word -- is easy. Taking a public stance, risking your image for something you believe in -- but others don't -- is hard.

"We are the least-respected culture of any in this country," Brown said of African-Americans. "One of the reasons is that we allow ourselves to feed on each other. Black kids kill black kids. We allow neighborhoods to run down. Black fathers are not at home. Education suffers. There's a dilemma, and if we don't do something about the violence, if we don't get some self-esteem, then we're going to have a war zone in every community in this country.

"What do Michael [Jordan] and those guys say about that?"

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
AP Photo/Rob CarrTiger addressed Brown's comments at a press conference earlier this week.

They say little or nothing about it. And that, maybe more than anything else, is what frustrates Brown about Woods, Jordan, Bryant, LeBron James and others -- they won't speak out.

"Very simply, [they] are the power brokers of today," Brown said. "They have the ears of the young people, the attention of the system, the legitimacy of their athletic backrounds, and they have the resources. … If they came down to Houston, Los Angeles, if they went to Cleveland, they could change the dynamics of the neighborhoods. They have the resources. They have the political power to influence."

Brown lives comfortably. But according to Forbes magazine, Woods is the highest-paid athlete in the world ($110 million last year) and has been for the past eight years.

"Man, I wish I was a billionaire," Brown said. "The work that could be done, are you kidding? … You've got to get into the mainstream of change. Just having a charity and foundation, tax deductible, is just not enough."

Brown doesn't care whether you, I, Woods, Jordan or anyone else agrees with him. He isn't in this for affirmation or backslaps. He wants social revolutionaries, not status quo.

"There's nobody in this country who is going to shut me up," he said.

I mentioned to Brown that Woods was asked earlier this week whether a conversation between he and Brown would be productive. "That depends on whether both parties show up open-minded," Woods told Michael Wilbon.

"Let me tell you something -- that was a fantastic answer," Brown said. "That was the most encouraging answer I have had in all of this stuff.

"I think that's almost like a godsend. The fact that he would even consider talking to me is a surprise."

Make no mistake, Woods and his camp were stung by what they considered Brown's uninformed HBO comments. So maybe a Woods-Brown summit is the way to go. Imagine the possibilities.

"Why don't you call him?" I said.

"I might do that," he said. "I might actually do that. That's right, I haven't tried to call him. I should make that call. That would be respectful of him."

So he wrote down the name, number and e-mail address of Woods' agent. Even double-checked the spellings.

I hope Brown calls. I hope Woods answers. They have so much to learn from each other.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter