At the age of 45, Fox TV sports broadcaster James Brown’s athletic and television career has included the stuff of which dream’s are made.
A standout among schoolboy basketball players in Washington, DC, Brown attended Harvard University on a academic scholarship and captained the Crimson basketball team as a senior at Cambridge, MA. he graduated from Harvard in 1973 with a degree in American government.
Brown was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks of the National Basketball Association and the Denver Rockets of the now-defunct American Basketball Association. After he was cut he become a familiar face at college and National Basketball Association games as an announcer.
He came to the FOX NFL Sunday anchor desk from CBS Sports, where he spent nine years as a college basketball analyst and NFL play-by-play announcer, as well as covering track and field at the 1992 Olympic Games and downhill skiing at the 1994 Olympic Games. He also shared in reporting duties for “CBS Sports Saturday/Sunday” and announced the Emmy Award-winning “Let Me Be Brave: A Special Climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro.”
Brown has hosted several pay-per-view boxing events and is a regular contributor to Home Box Office’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” and now hosts a jazz show for Black Entertainment Television.
In recent interview with Black Issues in Higher Education president William E. Cox and senior writer Ronald A. Taylor, he talked about athletics, scholarship and broadcasting.
What impact did Arthur Ashe’s achievements have on you as a young adult involved in athletics?
I’m really blessed that I had an opportunity to work with Arthur Ashe. Essentially what he wanted us to do was spend time talking with youngsters in college — grounding them, if you will, on the realities they will be facing once they get out of school.
His impact on me was centered on his reinforcement of what my mother and father would always tell me of the importance of being presentable and being neat. On a deeper level, he emphasized the importance of having a good education no matter where you went to school, but I had already bought into that. It’s why I went to a school like Harvard … understanding that I used my basketball talents to gain access into that institution.
When Arthur Ashe stated that less than 3,000 athletes actively earn a living in athletic endeavors, did you realistically believe that applied to your pro basketball ambitions?
I wanted pro basketball badly. When Atlanta Hawks coach Cotton Fitzsimmons called me to his office after about 10 days in camp, I thought I was killing them down there. The coach called me to his office and I thought he was going to congratulate me on how well I was playing. When he said, “I’ve got to let you go,” I thought, “What? Who beat me out?”
It turned out that he was good friends with one of the guys who wasn’t going to play that much … his wife and that guy’s wife were very good friends, so he said well, yeah I can keep you another year. Their attitude was that this kid, James Brown, was drafted in the fourth round, did not have a guaranteed contract, so we can let him go. It crushed me. I cried like a baby, hurt me to my heart.
Even having had a Harvard education, I was shocked. I was thinking that [being cut] may happen down the road, but not this early in the program.
During those early stages [after the cut], I was like most other youngsters. I should have been going to law school. But instead I’m thinking, maybe I could become a cop. Nothing wrong with that, understand, but your level of expectations are supposed to be higher, having gotten where you are. But when I was cut I was crushed, and it goes back to, again, what people, like my mother and father, like Arthur Ashe and all the rest [had said]: I had enough tools to prepare for the game of life. … I just didn’t think that athletic rug was going to be snatched from my feet that soon.
How far should a broadcaster go to avoid offending members of the viewing audience, especially in the barbs that contain a real or imagined ethnic or racial slight?
You’re talking about the [CBS sports analyst] Billy Packer remark [characterizing Georgetown University basketball player Allen Iverson as a “tough monkey”]?
Billy is a friend and a colleague and I think he has done a wonderful job behind the scenes. John Thompson delineated how Billy worked with the Black Coaches Association in devising and developing strategy for the BCA and how they can be a meaningful vehicle for change in the NCAA. All that’s fine and it’s good. He was the one that recommended Quinn Buckner, Len Elmo’re, George Raveling, Derek Dickey and a few other Blacks to be hired by CBS. Good stuff, we need that. And we still encourage that. But we all make mistakes, and he’s a product of his environment. As someone who grew down South, when you make a comment like that, it’s not that it should offset all that he’s done, because we all make mistakes, and you sit down and you have meaningful dialogue and you try to enlighten and then go beyond those mistakes, apologize for them genuinely, and then move on. But don’t discount it because a tough monkey comment is despicable to me because of all that it characterizes.
What do you have to say to youngsters who pretty much feel the same as you felt? What advice can you give them?
You know it is so hard to really get through to a number of them. They internalize the attitude that I’m going to be successful against all odds, so it makes it tough to get through to them.
Where do you stand on play for pay?
I’m against it. I think it sends the wrong message. It probably only reinforces what is in reality taking place anyway, understand that, but I don’t think that we have to make it worse. What I am more in favor of is maybe some money going into a trust fund, escrow, what have you, much like the track stars do who maintain amateur status. And then at a certain point they can draw on that for expenses and the like.
You competed in intercollegiate basketball while maintaining an academic scholarship at Harvard University. In light of the increasingly tight tough academic criteria imposed by the NCAA, how much should be expected from the student-athlete?
I absolutely feel that more is being expected of the student athlete than the average student in the student body, and that is so unfortunate.
No matter how you cut it, college athletics, especially football and basketball, is big-time business and that’s how the coaches are measuring the athletes. And yet they tax these youngsters to meet virtually impossible standards; with the least slip-up the youngsters are the ones who bear the brunt of it. It’s so unfair.
Once a youngster with athletic abilities is singled out as a potential star, what’s the best way to motivate them to hit the books hard. Really hard?
Treat them no differently than you do the rest of the student body. Don’t coddle them. Don’t pamper them. Don’t make excuses for them. Give them every bit of the same kind of challenge you give the rest of the student body. Far too often you don’t see that. Help them understand there is absolutely nothing wrong with going to remedial programs or going for after-school tutoring.
You are a visible role model for all students, but especially for the minority student-athletes of this country. What advice would you like to pass on to young men and women of color who wish to mix sports and scholarship to achieve their educational and career goals?
So often people who don’t possess athletic skills will try to make those who do feel as if they are inferior — that their physical prowess, if you will, is supposed to be looked at in a demeaning fashion.
I make it a point to carry myself in a fashion that I know my mother would be proud of. And it’s not hard. I think NBA player Charles Barkley might have been misunderstood to the degree that when he said we aren’t role models. The fact that we’re in a highly visible position [means] we are role models whether we want it or not. So, as such, I think we do have a responsibility to carry ourselves properly, to have a good grasp of the King’s English, to show that we’re broader based than just the one area of our specialty. And it just so happens for me my foundation is rooted in my Christianity. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Who were your personal role models and heroes?
My parents. My mother has an 11th-grade education. She raised five kids. My dad worked hard, had two or three jobs. My father worked two or three jobs so that she didn’t have to work while raising five kids.
Outside of that community, Bryant Gumbel is a role model from a professional standpoint. I really admire Bryant Gumbel. I don’t know him extremely well, but I’m a contributing reporter on his show on HBO called “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.” I happen to think that he is one of the brightest guys that we have in the business. He’s a very sharp interviewer. He has time enough for whomever he interviews. I really admire him and I like the transition he’s made from sports into news.
Is it too much to ask an athlete to be a role model?
People hang on to those efforts, so no it isn’t too much to ask an athlete to be a role model. I think an athlete must understand that inherent with visibility comes some responsibility for his or her actions. No, it isn’t too much to ask. Not at all.
What about these kids who leave the collegiate ranks for professional sports before their class graduates?
The dilemma is, when they put that kind of money in front of you, you’re hard-pressed to say no to that, to look away.
And you see it today … Allen Iverson talking about coming out of school, as an example. Yeah, he’s a tremendous talent. I don’t think he’s ready. But yet, they are going to dangle that kind of money in front of him. How are you going to tell him to turn down $5 million or $6 million. … I personally don’t think he’s ready, not only as a player, but in terms of personal maturity as well.
But the message that society at large still sends to most African Americans is that sports is still the way. You don’t hear enough talk about what’s happening in academia in terms of meaningful jobs at the professorial level, or what you can do as an attorney or a business executive. We don’t hear enough talk about that.
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