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Bruce Dowbiggin

The Formidable Superstar, Jim Brown Never Fit Black Or White Stereotypes

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“M***er fuckers be hanging off him. Eight of ‘em be begging Jim, ‘Please, Jim, would you fall down, please? We’re on TV, my kids are watching’.” Richard Pryor  on NFL players trying to tackle Jim Brown in the 1960s. 

The death at 87 of legendary athlete/ film star/ political activist Jim Brown comes just over three months from the death of hockey icon Bobby Hull. Both were alpha males possessed of adonis figures, the essence of vitality in their time. Brown gave up the NFL to become a film star. He went on to champion causes in the black political movement.

Hull went on to sire a HHoF player Brett Hull and work in the cattle industry. He also traded on his stardom. He is still regarded as one of the five most famous Chicago sports figures of all time, up there with Michael Jordan, Dick Butkus, Gayle Sayers and Ernie Banks.

Neither man was without controversy, however. Brown’s name was frequently associated with domestic violence. According to press reports, “On June 9, 1968, Brown, then 32, was booked on suspicion of assault with intent to commit murder against his girlfriend. The arrest occurred when Brown lived in Los Angeles while working as an actor. The woman, a model, was found semiconscious and moaning on a concrete patio 20 feet below the balcony of Brown’s Hollywood apartment.”

There were other incidents with police involvement, many in fact, but you get the drift. Hull, too, had a nasty legacy of domestic assault stemming from incidents involving his first wife. Neither man spent time in jail for the episodes. Hull made some politically insensitive remarks as well.

But, funny thing. When Hull died the Canadian sports press reports dutifully dredged up all his personal business to rebalance the adulation he received in life. As we reported at the time, some people thought that part of his life defined Hull.

But you had to look very hard into the reports of U.S. sports media on Brown’s death this week to find much about his less-attractive side. The praise for his athletic prowess was effusive. Rightly so. But for the liberal sports press that came of age in the 1960s, it was too much to taint Brown’s political legacy by showing his less-flattering past. So they almost universally gave it a pass. In one interview, Bob Costas, the liberal’s liberal in the press box, skirted the issue to dwell on his boyhood memories of Brown.

Wonder why? Those news sources that dared mention it— the New York Times— were lambasted for sullying his reputation with the facts. “It’s the New York Times vs. ESPN for scumbag of the week” is a sampling of the pushback from the sports world.

While playing at Syracuse, Brown was perhaps the greatest lacrosse player in American history before going on to football fame with the Cleveland Browns of the NFL. We can still remember, as Richard Pryor did, the sight of No. 32 dragging defenders along behind him as he set rushing and TD records in a 12-game season— records that are still mostly unassailable. He’s a Top Five NFL player all-time. Colts HOF tight end John Mackey summed up Brown’s style. “He told me, ‘Make sure when anyone tackles you he remembers how much it hurts’.” They did. Vividly.

We can also recall the shocking news that Brown was ditching football in 1966 after nine NFL seasons to star in a Hollywood epic, The Dirty Dozen, with Lee Marvin, John Cassavetes and Donald Sutherland. (He intended to return to the Browns but when they wouldn’t let him miss training camp he retired.)  How would he do? We rushed to see the film. Brown was just fine, dragging his fellow cast members after him like NFL players as he took on the Nazis.

He went on to star in 100 Rifles as Hollywood’s first black action star. Other movies followed. When the glamour of films lost its lustre Brown became an icon for the black political movement. He supported Muhammad Ali in his fight to avoid prison for refusing to serve in Viet Nam. He created camps and schools for black children and was a recurring figure at the seminal moments for black empowerment.

But his philosophy was not today’s Marxist #BLM brand. “We’ve got to get off the emotional stuff and do something that will bring about real change,” he said. “We’ve got to have industries and commercial enterprises and build our own sustaining economic base. Then we can face white folks man-to-man and we can deal.” He was not easily intimidated.

In 2018, Brown and Kanye West met with President Donald Trump to discuss the state of America. Criticized by the black community for the meeting, Brown said, ”we can’t ignore that seat and just call names of the person that’s sitting in it”. Brown called Trump “accessible”, and said that the president was not a racist. The Brown obits in liberal media buried those quotes deep in stories.

Still he scared some folks. Files declassified in 2003 showed that the FBI, the U.S. Secret Service and several police departments had monitored Brown and the Black Economic Union, attempting to smear the group as a source of Communist and radical Muslim extremism. Hillary Clinton would have been proud.

Brown himself was into unapologetic self-improvement as he showed when he went to Pryor’s hospital room after the comedian set himself alight while freebasing. While others soft pedalled their advice Brown made it clear that Pryor had to kick drugs, and that he would help him do so. (As thanks, Pryor later screwed Brown in a film deal that would have brought him millions.)

Brown was unrepentant when confronted about his past. “I’m no angel,” he told The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer in 1970. Regarding the assault allegations, he said, “I’ve never been convicted. I’ve just been harassed. I’ve been hit so much I don’t sting any more… I take it and look my accuser in the eye. I don’t look at my shoes when I talk to anybody. I know what I am. I only have to live with myself.”

That he did. The biggest difference between him and Hull was that the critics of the Golden Jet wanted to get tawdry clicks from his life story. With Brown they wanted him to advertise their Woke selves. That’s a huge and crucial difference in this insane world.

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Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the editor of Not The Public Broadcaster  A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he’s a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. Inexact Science: The Six Most Compelling Draft Years In NHL History, his new book with his son Evan, was voted the seventh-best professional hockey book of all time by bookauthority.org . His 2004 book Money Players was voted sixth best on the same list, and is available via http://brucedowbigginbooks.ca/book-personalaccount.aspx

BRUCE DOWBIGGIN Award-winning Author and Broadcaster Bruce Dowbiggin's career is unmatched in Canada for its diversity and breadth of experience . He is currently the editor and publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster website and is also a contributor to SiriusXM Canada Talks. His new book Cap In Hand was released in the fall of 2018. Bruce's career has included successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster for his work with CBC-TV, Mr. Dowbiggin is also the best-selling author of "Money Players" (finalist for the 2004 National Business Book Award) and two new books-- Ice Storm: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Vancouver Canucks Team Ever for Greystone Press and Grant Fuhr: Portrait of a Champion for Random House. His ground-breaking investigations into the life and times of Alan Eagleson led to his selection as the winner of the Gemini for Canada's top sportscaster in 1993 and again in 1996. This work earned him the reputation as one of Canada's top investigative journalists in any field. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald (1998-2009) and the Globe & Mail (2009-2013) where his incisive style and wit on sports media and business won him many readers.

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Bruce Dowbiggin

Jerry Came to See The Babies. And They Walked Out On Him

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Cometh the hour, cometh the comedian. Or, you can learn a lot about a demographic by what makes them laugh.

The legacy/ lunacy media schvitzed itself over a few furious sociology majors and look-at-me drama queens walking out on Jerry Seinfeld’s commencement address at Duke University last weekend. But the significance of his admission that he was 70 was probably far more newsworthy to those now in retirement, binge-watching his eponymous TV series on one of those down-the-dial channels.

If we had a dollar for every Boomer who said, “Seinfeld is 70?” while watching the address we’d be Warren-Buffett-rich this morning. He doesn’t look like any 70 year olds we know. Fifty? Maybe. But listening to his familiar delivery, the mocking on his honorary degree costume, it was easy to believe that we, too, are much younger than our blood-thinner prescriptions say.

It also pointed out the evolution of Boomers’ comedic tastes. When they came of age in the late 1960s/ early 1970s Woody Allen best profiled as his generation’s comedic muse. With a dozen classic movies ranging from What’s New Pussycat (1965) through Play It Again Sam (1972) to Annie Hall (1977) Allen’s self-deprecating nebbish captured the romantic/ridiculous self-image of Boomers with “Some drink deeply from the river of knowledge. Others only gargle”.

The neurotic, insecure Allen then decided to become Ingmar Bergman, and Boomers— now assembling jobs, children and first spouses— moved on. But for that 12-year span the bedraggled standup comedian was the go-to with lines like “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you” and  “The only love that lasts is unrequited love.”

Woody’s pointed contemporary political references in those years were few (conflating “D’you” for “Jew” with Tony Roberts in Manhattan) and self-deflating (see Annie Hall). His most prominent political jabs were framed in absurdist material like Love And Death and Bananas. Culturally he was merciless but affectionate about his Brooklyn upbringing. In short his were perfect date movies for Boomers seeking love to advertise their pretensions.

Flash forward from Woody to Seinfeld (created with Larry David) which was anti-romantic in the extreme. The characters were sociopaths. The situations often cringeworthy. The 24-minute formula harkened back to Lucy and the Honeymooners. And while schlock like Friends trod the same ground it was Seinfeld that somehow captured the Boomer  zeitgeist. 

Why? Boomers going through middle age were too disillusioned with how life was turning out to romanticize anymore. The self-obsessed characters were people they knew from work, school and dealing with government. Smirking Bill Clinton was the face of an era. “When we did my show in the 90s, it was so easy to make fun of things. It was so easy,” Seinfeld told Amy Schumer.

Significantly, Seinfeld the Show was cultural. Or quasi-cultural. It was never about politics per se. It was about the people who thwart you in life. Whose vanity ruins your plans from school days. Who go 50 mph in the left lane. “When is Jerry going to see the baby?” It rarely challenged its fans on an emotional level. It was mostly about navigating madness.

And often about the most mundane elements of life. The address on the weekend contained The Seinfeld Doctrine of Lowered Expectations. “It’s easy to fall in love with people. I suggest falling in love with anything and everything, every chance you get. Fall in love with your coffee, your sneakers, your blue zone parking space. I’ve had a lot of fun in life falling in love with stupid, meaningless physical objects. 

“The object I love the most is the clear-barrel Bic pen — $1.29 for a box of 10. I can fall in love with a car turn signal switch that has a nice feel to it, a pizza crust that collapses with just the right amount of pressure. I have truly spent my life focusing on the smallest things imaginable, completely oblivious to all the big issues of living.”

Reaching across the generations Seinfeld delivered Dad jokes and bromides to kids who education probably cost $100 K a year. “I think it is also wonderful that you care so much about not hurting other people’s feelings in the million and one ways we all do that,” he said. Then he explained why that might be a fruitless pursuit. Not in Curb Your Enthusiasm darkness. But sobering.

That’s why it was in character for him to let the furious demonstrators depart at Duke without comment. So was appearing at Duke, the Ivy League of Tobacco Road, founded by the people who made jillions selling nicotine. And why he let them garb him like Thomas Cromwell in the absurd 16th century cape and hat so he could score few laughs.

Because laughter is his means of dealing with jerks like the outbound Hamas crowd. “What I need to tell you as a comedian: Do not lose your sense of humour. You can have no idea at this point in your life how much you are going to need it to get through. Not enough of life makes sense for you to be able to survive it without humour.”

Yes, He has been vocal lately about the effect of political correctness ruining TV comedy. Drawing flak from former friends and fans who are in the Biden re-education camps at the moment. But his annoyance at ruining an art form far outweighed any complaints about Covid and Ukraine.

As opposed to the nihilism of his former partner David, his insouciance and comic patter represent an antidote for where most of his original fans are at the moment. Woody Allen, their former idol, is now seen as a pedo and a failed nouveau vage auteur. Disillusioned with virus lies, electoral shenanigans and soaring prices, Boomers on a pension are unanchored, floating through what used to be North American society (when only women had babies).

In fact, Boomer spectators watching Seinfeld’s 17-minute speech maybe summed it up for themselves by recalling the Seinfeld mantra, “It was a show about nothing.” And they’d be right. Jerry is the man for those times.

Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster  A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he’s a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. Now for pre-order, new from the team of Evan & Bruce Dowbiggin . Deal With It: The Trades That Stunned The NHL & Changed Hockey. From Espo to Boston in 1967 to Gretz in L.A. in 1988 to Patrick Roy leaving Montreal in 1995, the stories behind the story. Launching in paperback and Kindle on #Amazon this week. Destined to be a hockey best seller. https://www.amazon.ca/Deal-Trades-Stunned-Changed-Hockey-ebook/dp/B0D236NB35/

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Bruce Dowbiggin

Why Do The Same Few Always Get The Best Sports Scoops?

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The Toronto Maple Leafs made the “what colour is that green light?” decision to fire their head coach Sheldon Keefe last week. The removal of Keefe after five years followed a dispiriting first-round playoff series loss to a very ordinary Boston Bruins team. Coaching may or may not have been the root cause of that loss. (Keefe himself admitted “teams are waiting for the Leafs to beat themselves”.)

The real reason for the firing is 1967, and we don’t think we need add more than that.

In essence, the management of MLSE— the owner of the Maple Leafs and a lot of other sports stuff in Toronto— needed to throw a body to the baying hounds of disappointment. Also known as Leafs Nation. Newly minted CEO Keith Pelley, fresh from the PGA Tour/ LIV psychodrama, was certainly not going to pay the price.

Nor was GM Brad Treliving who has only been on the job for two seasons. The key decisions on Toronto’s lopsided salary cap were decided long before Treliving occupied his desk. That left two people in vulnerable positions. 1) Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, who has been drawing an MLSE cheque for a decade. 2) Keefe.

When was the last time you saw a coach fire a team president? Precisely. Keefe joins the list of (briefly) unemployed coaches who circulate in the NHL like McKinsey consultants. Shanahan gets a lukewarm mulligan from Pelley. But after the failure of the Kyle Dubas experiment— “who needs experience?”— and now just a single playoff series win in a decade Shanny’s best-before date has arrived.

Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan attends a news conference in Toronto on April 14, 2014. Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan said Peter Horachek will remain the team’s interim head coach until the end of the season. Shanahan met the media Friday for the first time since coach Randy Carlyle was fired on Tuesday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Depending on who he and Treliving enlist to coach— remember, Mike Babcock was too tough and Keefe was probably too player friendly— it had better produce instant results. Because Shanny, the pride of Mimico, is out of chances. The coach choice will also be affected by whichever player or players that management decides are superfluous to ending the Leafs’ ridiculous run of misery.

The Leafs brass’ press conference last Thursday did little to shed light on what happens after Keefe’s expulsion. Just a lot of MBA determinism on a bed of baffle gab. A crabby Steve Simmons question/rant briefly threatened the harmony of the moment, but order was restored. And the media bitching switched from the press box to social media and podcasts.

Speaking of the fourth estate, the other unmentioned aspect of this story— indeed every story in the NHL these days— is just how it was revealed to the public. When people sipped their morning Tim’s or Starbucks the (almost) coincident bulletins came down the social media pike about Keefe’s dismissal.

Predictably, Chris Johnston of Sportsnet and Daren Dreger of TSN announced the breaking news within heart beats of each other. While there had been speculation on Keefe’s fate for days, the announcement coming from the networks duo confirmed the story in the minds of the industry. That allowed everyone else drawing a cheque as a hockey journalist to pile in and swarm the dead body.

In today’s sports journalism, where social media has replaced newspapers, scoops are governed by a protocol. There are the heralds— in the NHL it’s currently Johnston and Dreger— and then there are the disseminators. The days of a rabble of reporters all scrambling to get a story bigger than who-will-play-in-tonight’s-game are gone. Today, it’s a very narrow funnel for scoops.

It’s the same in the NFL where Ian Rappaport (NFL Network) and Adam Schefter (ESPN) monopolize the tasty scoops on behalf of their employers, who also happen to be NFL rights holders. In the NBA, Brian Windhorst (ESPN) has the inside rail when it comes to the LeBron James/ Steph Curry scoops. In MLB… it’s probably Ken Rosenthal  (The Athletic) but no one cares about baseball anymore, do they?

The leagues like it this way, doling out stories to guys they can trust. None of this is criticism of Johnston or Dreger, who have deftly maneuvered themselves into the coveted “from their lips to your ears” spots. From our own experience we can remember the exhilaration of having the best source or sources on the really big stories. Like Johnston/ Dreger, we worked hard for a long time to develop those sources and only very reluctantly let anyone else horn in on our stories.

It was also our observation that this order of things journalistic suited a lot of reporters who either couldn’t get good sources or didn’t want the stress of being first on stuff. It was enough that, like the Keefe story, they’d get the goods eventually and most fans would not care who was first. So long as you had a take. So be it.

Some resentful types took potshots at our work if it upset their pals in the dressing room or the management suite. On the Stephen Ames/ Tiger Woods story in 2001, we had the late Pat Marsden tell us on air that we’d done a great job on Ames’ criticisms of Tiger. Only to hear him lambaste us— again on FAN 590— only minutes later as we listened driving home from the studio. But we digress.

Many reporters are complacent in playing the game, so long as their bosses didn’t enquire why they are getting scooped all the time by the same few rivals. With the death of daily newspapers that doesn’t happen much any longer. (Many editors today may only see stories when publication brings a libel notice.) For them a salty take is good enough.

The scoop business is also affected by the multiple roles now demanded of sports media types. In addition to their “day job” on a beat they also have to supply digital content and talk-back hits to the Mother Ship. Most also are feeding a weekly podcast, dictating time on air rather than time working the phone. There are only so many hours in a day to chase a story.

Better to play the Breaking News waiting game.

Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster  A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he’s a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. Now for pre-order, new from the team of Evan & Bruce Dowbiggin . Deal With It: The Trades That Stunned The NHL & Changed Hockey. From Espo to Boston in 1967 to Gretz in L.A. in 1988 to Patrick Roy leaving Montreal in 1995, the stories behind the story. Launching in paperback and Kindle on #Amazon this week. Destined to be a hockey best seller. https://www.amazon.ca/Deal-Trades-Stunned-Changed-Hockey-ebook/dp/B0D236NB35/

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