The Fierce Life of an American HeroBy Mike Freeman

Morrow. 289 pp. $25.95

"There have been few athletes smarter or more defiant or more controversial," Mike Freeman writes in his new biography of football legend, actor and activist Jim Brown. A sportswriter who formerly worked at The Washington Post and the New York Times, Freeman offers a complex narrative of a dynamic and contradictory man. He resists the familiar practice of constructing heroes as all good and villains as pure evil, revealing Brown to be "both heroic and flawed," a contradictory figure who was ahead of his time but whose personal failures continue to limit our ability to see his greatness.

"Just as he left the crumbs of opponents scattered behind him on his blazing sprints on the football field, Jim Brown also cast aside the shells of stereotypes wherever he passed," Freeman writes. "He redefined what it meant to be a movie star, a lover, a civil rights leader, an activist. He helped to redefine what it meant to live as a black man in America, from the 1950s until today." Athletically, Brown was a pioneer at the collegiate level, putting Syracuse University football on the national map in the late 1950s. He was an all-American in both football and lacrosse (although Freeman gives too little attention to his lacrosse career) and excelled at track and basketball, as well. To this day, he remains the only athlete to be inducted into the halls of fame of lacrosse, collegiate football and professional football.

Freeman elucidates how "Brown redefined what it meant to be an athlete," whether through his physical dominance, his intellectual approach, his work ethic or his unwillingness to kowtow to the demands of his coaches, fans and the media.

"Brown was unlike any other football player," Freeman writes. "He purposely used the clout accumulated from his years of football stardom to try to enact social awareness and change." To Freeman, Brown's greatness rests with his commitment to civil and human rights, evidenced in his involvement with the Negro Industrial and Economic Union (an organization he helped form in the 1960s to assist black businesses) and Amer-I-Can (an organization founded by Brown in 1988 to curtail gang violence and promote economic development).

Freeman also shows how Brown's acting career was a natural continuation of his efforts to challenge what was acceptable for a black man. In Hollywood, he "kicked in that door by being the uncompromising, forward-thinking man that he was as a football star and a civil rights leader."

A second theme of Freeman's book is the continuity of Brown's views and activism. As a college student, he challenged racism and the mistreatment he experienced as a black student-athlete. Fifty years removed, he remains a vocal critic of the exploitation of today's athletes.

Not surprisingly, given his fighting spirit and his outspokenness, Brown has been equally defined by controversy. Freeman documents how he has faced surveillance from the FBI and continues to be a pariah within some media circles. He addresses accusations of Brown's violence toward women, suggesting that the domestic battery he was charged with -- and twice convicted for -- is a mere character flaw: "Brown's alleged acts of domestic abuse . . . indeed scar him, but they do not define him."

Finally, Freeman questions why Brown is not held in higher repute by the American sports establishment. Notwithstanding his flaws and contradictions, he argues, Brown is an American hero who deserves respect and celebration. "What makes Brown's accomplishments more impressive than others' is that Brown's activism has been the most lasting," Freeman writes. "For five decades he has used the platform of his various careers and businesses, as well as his eloquence, to further his causes and beliefs. No athlete has done all of these things as well or as long as Brown. Not even [Muhammad] Ali."

Reflecting his effort to celebrate Brown and rebuff his critics, Freeman shies away from some of the controversy that swirls around his life, most notably Brown's gender politics. He even condemns the "soundless athlete" of today as the antithesis of what Brown stands for as an athlete, entertainer, activist and man. But the greatness of Jim Brown need not be defined through any comparisons. Rather, the greatness of others should be measured against his accomplishments and failures, and his example of what it means to be a black man in America.