Jim Brown looks at the NFL, and he sees a disconnection.
With embarrassing off-field incidents becoming an almost weekly part of the league's fabric, and on-field angst bubbling over in a growing fraction of its youth, Brown sees a league that is losing touch with some of its players. With that in mind, the former Cleveland Browns great, currently an advisor to that franchise, discussed the health of the NFL and some of the league's pertinent issues with Yahoo! Sports. Among the topics, Brown shared his thoughts on why off-field conduct seems to be becoming a consistent problem; how rule changes are bogging down the essence of the game; the league's pension issues with former players; and why a cap on rookie contracts would be a healthy move for the league.
Robinson: Do you think the game is as healthy as it's ever been? Some people say the product on the field has never been better.
Brown: The entertainment is there from the standpoint of the playoff structure, the marketing and the personalities. But the game is way up in entertainment and way down in perfection. The ball is on the ground too much. There are too many unintelligent plays. There's not a lot of discipline. And the rules have gotten to the point where it's almost ridiculous. They're trying to turn it into touch football. The horse collar rule is totally ridiculous. And we've had a few incidents where the quarterback was in the grasp, but the player felt if he threw him down too hard, there would be a penalty (i.e. Giants defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka against the Titans on Sunday). There is hesitation and indecision now in a lot of situations where it comes to players hitting the quarterback. It becomes a ticky-tack kind of thing that doesn't really represent what football is all about. Football is a very physical game, but they've tried to legislate things to a point where there is too much indecision.
Robinson: Do you think too much legislation robs football of what makes it great?
Brown: Yeah. What you're doing is you're taking away the essence of the game. When you go out on a football field, you are responsible for taking care of yourself. The more rules you get, the less players truly take care of themselves. See, quarterbacks have to be in great condition. They have to make big decisions, which make for greatness. But when they don't get in condition, and you try to protect them – you deal with the slide rule, and you deal with if you're hit in the helmet or your facemask is touched – there are only certain things you shouldn't allow. Your facemask shouldn't be pulled on. … But now you can't hit below the knees, you can't do this or that and there are so many rules where you almost don't know what to do to a quarterback anymore. It's trying to protect the players, but you know, I think it's also an attempt to try to add to the offensive excitement of the game. It's over-legislated and it's not fair to defensive players. It doesn't represent what football is supposed to be.
Robinson: You and I spoke before, and you said that money is becoming too much of a central thing in this league. What did you mean by that?
Brown: The league is set up backwards. Somehow they have arrived at an agreement that is almost the opposite of what it should be. Players coming out of college have the greatest value. And it's not because they are going to be a great pro. It's because they have played well in college; they have a lot of publicity around them; and there's the draft and all this fan interest. So you give a player coming out of college a $20 million bonus – and that's his money. He hasn't played one down. Then, at a certain point in his career, when he has proven himself and he's actually ready for a major paycheck, then you have to get rid of him. It's like the opposite of what should be happening. It doesn't breed greatness in the league, either. And it's something that is a matter of agents battling for the most money. Then you have guys holding players out and that makes a player's value the first year null and void. He doesn't get to camp on time, then he doesn't catch up, so he basically misses that first year. If he was in camp and signed up early and ready to play, you would at least get that value that first year. So there are a lot of things that money dictates early on that aren't the best thing for the game.
Robinson: Would you be in favor of slotting rookie contracts, basically creating a rookie cap like the NBA, with a predetermined amount going to players based on draft position?
Brown: I would think something like that would be much fairer to everybody. The incentives in the contracts could work better that way, and later considerations would work better, too. If the (NFL) Players Association and the league got together, they could come up with something that would be an advantage to the owners and an advantage to the players from the standpoint of quality of play, getting to camp on time, and having players who want to perform. None of this being set financially before you ever play a down, where if you never even play a down, you're still a $20 million guy. That doesn't seem to make sense.
Robinson: You told me before that you think there's a lack of social consciousness with players in the league today. Are guys just not socially aware when it comes to issues outside of football or do they just purposely stay away from things?
Brown: The issues are not paramount anymore. There's a great competition to make the most money, to make the Pro Bowls and those things. The league has almost become all-encompassing. The social issues outside of football are not as defined as they were earlier, when integration took place and certain rights were legislated. The Civil Rights movement is over. Individuals can buy homes wherever they want, travel first class wherever they want, eat wherever they want. All of these things now are part of the everyday lives of players. But the discrimination and racism in the world now is very subtle. It's poor people that are really suffering from a lack of inclusion. Poor people live in a part of town that most players don't go into, and those people aren't an issue as far as the league is concerned. Basically, the players have become part of the elite part of society. And I mean regardless of their color or anything like that. They are part of the elite part of our society because of money and status. So there's not discrimination based on black and white; it's more of a discrimination based on the rich and the poor. The poor get little consideration. The schools in our country are suffering tremendously. Violence is at an astronomical level and nobody seems to be interested.
Robinson: Has the league moved itself away from being accessible and effectual when it comes to the disenfranchised part of society?
Brown: The league will do charitable things, but it's not going to be anything that is going to make a major change in the world. They deal with things that are appealing to people. If you help disabled children, it's very appealing. If you help kids with cancer, those are the things you get credit for and those things are beautiful. But when it comes to stopping violence or really putting the time into rebuilding schools, that's just a different kind of project. It takes more than just money to do that. You have to put time and effort and put systems in place and all that. It's not something where you can just donate a check to the Red Cross or you can take a photo op with kids in a hospital and then that's it.
When you're talking about rebuilding schools, that's a big project. When you're talking about re-integrating inmates into society to make it safer, that's a big job. When you talk about stopping violence in these neighborhoods all over the country, that's a major job because there isn't just one thing that you can do. Money is a part of it. But then there's a lot of work that has to take place that the league isn't capable of doing. But the league itself suffers because a lot of these kids playing today are from these cultures. And the league wonders why these kids are not in touch and why they aren't in touch with these kids. It's because they aren't in touch with the culture these kids are coming from. So they don't know how to approach these kids and work with them.
Even though the money is great and the fame is great, you still have a lot of disenfranchised young men that are participating in the NFL that are not very happy. A lot of them are very bitter. A lot them are very angry. So many of them have had no fathers and no home life, and basically, no education. So, coming into the league, it's the first time they've been able to get anything materially that they want. And all of the sudden, people are looking at them as so-called role models – which I don't believe in – and inside, these kids are very unhappy.
Robinson: The league has talked about strengthening the personal conduct policy. There's been a lot of talk about all of the arrests and police incidents that have occurred with players this year and those kinds of issues. Is it a backwards approach to just strengthen the personal conduct policy rather than figure out how to connect with players before the problems occur?
Brown: Yes, you're absolutely right. The whole thing with the punishment doesn't work. The punishment is after the fact. It takes education. And the league doesn't reach out to the people that would have the educational techniques to work with these youngsters. The league is a club of its own. If you go and get someone from Harvard, and he's doctor so-and-so, and then you have him go around to teams and give them a two-hour lecture, (the league believes that's addressing the issue). They're not really in touch. They're emphasizing rules once again, and rules are broken all the time. Most of these kids are used to breaking rules.
When you have a problem, rules don't solve your problem. It's caring and education. You have to connect properly with these young people and understand there is a psychological problem there. It's not done just because you fine a guy $100,000 or $50,000. The unhappiness shows all over these guys, and the league doesn't seem to be able to understand it. But they like the talent, so they put everything aside and go along with everything that's being done so they can utilize the talent of that person. But when that talent is gone, then it's like a breath of fresh air to get rid of him. I'm saying these things not to knock the league. You have more there than the league. You have the league, you have the agents, you have the managers, the lawyers. You have the kids themselves and what's left of the families. It's all of our responsibility to connect with these young men and do it in a way that allows them to get some inner satisfaction. Only the inner satisfaction is going to make the behavior come up to what we expect of them.
Robinson: We spoke before about the lack of father figures in the lives of some players today. If there is something like that lacking, how do you go about making sure players are getting the right guidance in their lives?
Brown: Let me be very outspoken with you. I run a program called Amer-I-Can. We've taught in prisons, schools, juvenile facilities and we teach in the community. We have the greatest record from the standpoint of dealing with grade point averages, disciplinary action and attendance in schools. All the quantitative data is there. We deal with gang-bangers who have turned their lives around – which literally means you are saving lives. We have a life-skills program that is as good as any in the country.
The year Baltimore won the Super Bowl, we went in and I had two of my guys give a seminar there and we left a lot of materials with that team. The principals of the program are unbelievable. If the league would just reach out and just recognize what is going on and what is needed, we could set a tremendous program that would take about two weeks of the players' time. If each player was basically given the opportunity to attend that life skills management seminar, I guarantee there would be a huge difference in the actions of these young men. We've already proven it with a much tougher audience when it comes to guys like gang members. Those are people that are basically in war-like situations. My point is, there are things that could be adapted by the league that would be a realistic approach to human behavior and how to develop and change human behavior.
The things the NFL does now are kind of company things, which you can understand. It's like they are dealing within the family. But I think sometimes you have to reach outside your family to find things that really work. If an organization can go to a prison and stop riots, and you can relate to young men all over the country, then what is the NFL but a lot of young men that come from all walks of life? If you look at Curtis Martin, if you look at Kellen Winslow, Dennis Northcutt, LaDainian Tomlinson – Amer-I-Can training allows us to be able to relate to these young men, and have these young men relate to us. There is a methodology. There has to be caring. There has to be education. You have to approach it in a consistent manner. It can't be a quick fix. The league has an opportunity to institute some things that would really be meaningful and would help in the behavior of these young men.
Robinson: There have been some voices from past eras in the NFL that have been disappointed with the pensions doled out to former players, particularly when it comes to the mounting medical bills that exist largely in relation to their playing days. What do you think about the pension issues?
Brown: The NFL pension is the worst in the world of business. It's an embarrassment. No, I don't think there should be better pensions. I know there should be. It's an embarrassment and it's unfair. It's a shame. There are some players that make $120 a month. I don't care what the conditions are. No player should be making $120 a month off the pension plan.
Robinson: How would you like to see amends made? I spoke to (former Green Bay Packers lineman) Jerry Kramer a few months back and he basically said there needs to be a better mechanism that makes sure former players are taken care of, whether it's paying for medical bills or just simply increasing the amount paid to former players.
Brown: Bart Starr and myself, along with Roger Staubach, we spoke to Gene Upshaw. We were supposed to have a meeting, but it was cancelled. We had a telephone conference call with him, and he said there was some room to make it better and that he's going to work on it. The last thing I heard, there should be about a 20-percent increase in pensions which I think would be very, very helpful. And they do have some medical situations to help players. But it really needs to be revisited. The young players of today should really step up. Some of the players are homeless. And as I said, some of them are making as little as $120 a month.
Robinson: There has been some talk about banned substances in the league and we've seen some prominent suspensions over the last few years. We've also heard a lot of talk about HGH and reasoning why the NFL isn't testing for it. "Bigger, faster stronger" seems to be the league trend. With that in mind, is it possible that a substance like HGH or even other substances are more prevalent than people realize?
Brown: First of all, let me say this about the league: Bigger, fatter, more out of condition and getting hurt a lot. You can quote me on that. I've never seen more fat guys in my life. And I've never seen more injuries in my life. We've got guys that can get out of a game with a broken finger, a twisted wrist, or a high ankle sprain. It's unbelievable. That's basically my answer. I don't see how they could be using too much illegal stuff that's helping them. When I'm in the locker room and I'm looking around, I don't think I'm looking at a lot of guys that are trying to cheat. Every once in a while a guy might come along that's a physical freak and you might be suspicious. But I don't think there is a lot of stuff that's being used, to be honest with you.
Robinson: Tell me a little more about Amer-I-Can, so readers can understand why it's so important to you.
Brown: It's really not a charity. It's really a movement. I'm not trying to solicit anything from the general public at this time. I'm trying to build assistance. But anybody that has special interest, they can go to www.amer-i-can.org. We're trying to make change. Basically by stopping the violence with these young kids killing each other and upgrading schools. These two things, to me, are the most vital things we can do for our young people.
Jim Brown's Celebrity Golf Classic – benefiting the Amer-I-Can foundation – will be held Jan. 29 and 31 at the Blue Monster golf course at Doral Golf Resort in Miami, Fla. Those interested in information or becoming a sponsor for the classic can contact Floyd Raglin at firstname.lastname@example.org.