SBJ/20090202/Opinion

Saying ‘yes’ to rewarding generosity, being a role model

Editor's note: This story is revised from the print edition.

When James Brown was working as a young reporter in the mid-1980s at a CBS affiliate in Washington, D.C., he was devastated by a news story about a woman mugged in his old Northeast neighborhood. The perpetrators had forced the woman into an abandoned garage when they realized they recognized her. She could identify them “so they killed her,” Brown said recently. “They murdered her in the most brutal fashion. It was so horrendous, I don’t even want to describe it.”

A quarter of a century later, Brown is still shocked by the memory. But back then, he said, “I just had to do something.”

Doing something is a recurring habit for the man who quarterbacks “The NFL Today” pregame show on CBS. Growing up in a lower-middle class section of D.C., he earned a reputation for charity toward friends, teammates and neighbors. As an adult, he finds time and resources for those in need; and as a celebrity, Brown, more commonly know as JB, lends his name to the NFL Players Association’s most noticeable charity. The JB Awards raised more than $1 million last April for the D.C.-area Special Olympics.

In a November magazine feature in the Washingtonian, Showtime’s “Inside the NFL” producer Peter Radovich Jr. said, “JB is blessed with likability.” It’s evident in our living rooms on Sunday afternoons. His warmth, sense of humor and kindness seem part of his signature. On the small screen, we have no doubt about his big heart. We have little trouble believing that generosity is an integral part of who he is. He said, “It’s hardwired into my psyche.” 

When he read about the murdered woman, he could do little. He made a consolation call to the family but that seemed prosaic. Brown learned that the woman had a son in junior high school. He decided to offer the grieving teen a moment of relief.

“I took him to a Redskins game. I bought him hot dogs and fries. The Redskins were great. They allowed me to take the boy onto the sidelines. (You could get away with that then.) When he saw the players, his eyes lit up. He uttered just one word: ‘Wow!’ I know it doesn’t sound like much, but I cried like a baby.”

James Brown’s annual JB Awards
honors NFL players for their
charitable contributions.

That “Wow!” filled Brown with a sense of purpose. It produced warmth he continually craves. “It’s a feeling that is etched into my mental software.”

He agreed five years ago to lend his name to the NFLPA’s program formerly known as the “Unsung Heroes.” When Pat Allen, then chief operating officer of Players Inc., asked him to host the award program, “I couldn’t say no.”

Saying “no” is a goal he’s working toward with about as much success as his regular treadmill battles against weight. “I recruited into the fold my wife, Dorothy; my sister, Alicia Brown; and my assistant, Elizabeth Malia. I’m learning to say ‘no,’” he said with determination before continuing sotto voce with resignation, “but I usually say ‘yes.’”

In saying “yes” to Allen, Brown saw an opportunity to give to givers. Ultimately, he believes, it will encourage a grander scale of charity.

Player representatives at the 32 teams select nominees for JB Awards according to their contribution to their communities. As the NFL season marches toward the playoffs, Brown and Malia huddle in the selection process. At the climax of football and holiday seasons, when time is precious, they pore over the submissions.

“It’s tough to pare them down,” said Brown of the awards, which will be announced this month and aired on CBS next October. “These stories touch your core.” What starts each year as a duty becomes an inspiration. “Revered athletes touch lives in magnificent ways, and that inspires me.”

That selflessness comes from his parents, John and Mary Ann Brown. “It boggles my mind how they did it. My mother was 26 when she had her fifth child. My father worked two jobs at the post office and driving a cab. We never knew that we weren’t well off. My mother would forgo the 25 cents for a pair of stockings so that she could provide more for her kids. Our $13,500 house was refinanced over and over again. They squeezed every dollar they could out of that house to pay college tuition for four.”

Brown, now 57 and a grandfather, graduated from Harvard, where he played basketball. He married Dorothy and they had a daughter, Katrina, who in turn had a daughter, Kaela.

Before his parents passed on, they passed on to Brown the Christian values at the core of his kindness. The Washingtonian piece was titled “Making Mama Proud.” Among its vignettes: Brown’s continual kindness toward Virginia Washington, an elderly neighbor and longtime friend of the family.

Malia said that after the article was published, Brown and Dorothy took Washington shopping for her family’s Christmas dinner. “She didn’t ask him; they just did it. He does things like that for so many others. Countless times he and Dorothy pray with folks when they’re experiencing life’s challenges.”

Brown said, “I’ll never get tired of making someone happy.”

He believes that charity is more effective when done quietly. “The ones who really touch us are the ones who don’t want to be recognized.” So he’s uncomfortable with talking about his deeds. But he also admits that with celebrity comes responsibility. “Those of us in the public eye must be role models.”

John Genzale (johngenzale@gmail.com) is founding editor of SportsBusiness Journal.

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