‘Listen to learn’: CBS Sports’ James Brown on the way forward on race

In this Sept. 15, 2016, file photo, CBS Sports commentator James Brown works the NFL football game between the Buffalo Bills and the New York Jets in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Bill Wippert, File)
March 1, 2021 | 'You do see color': CBS Sports' James Brown (with WTOP's Dave Johnson)

Growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s in D.C., CBS Sports broadcaster James Brown remembers his mother inspired him with a simple message.

“My mother told me excellence knows no color,” Brown said. “Excellence is not unique to one given color or persuasion. She told her kids ‘You guys have excellence in you, and don’t let anybody tell you differently.’”

Brown heeded that advice: He was a standout basketball player and student at DeMatha Catholic High School, went on to graduate from Harvard and is now at the top of network television. But the fact that Brown’s mother felt compelled to deliver the message says a lot about those times, and today, Brown understands both the opportunities and opposition that a Black person faces in the United States.

“Have we made progress? Yes,” Brown said. “Do we still have a vexing — which seems to be to some people an intractable — problem known as race consciousness, divisiveness? Yes, we do.”

Along with the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 will be remembered as a year when a variety of issues — from police brutality to the need for racial equality and diversity — were thrust into the social conscious spotlight. There were demonstrations and there was dialogue, and Brown thinks the desire for change isn’t fading.

“This seems to be a little bit more lasting in terms of engendering conversations among non-homogenous groups — people from different racial backgrounds getting together and having serious conversations,” Brown said. “It doesn’t seem to be just a knee-jerk reaction and then back to the same old, same old.”

Brown said conversations about race need to be open and frank in order to trigger change.

“It would be perfect if we had conversations where people aren’t afraid to ask what might be perceived as the insensitive questions,” Brown said. “It should be OK to ask the stupid-sounding questions, because if they are asked genuinely, they help us to move forward.”

Brown has understood since his playing days the important role athletic competition has played in the quest for equality.

“Sports has always been viewed as a wonderful platform that helps to move the social needle forward,” Brown said. “In sports, people are coming from different and disparate backgrounds, but all putting on the same uniform, aiming for the same goal: to win.”

The goals might be the same, but the fields are still not level on the sidelines or front offices in professional sports. In the NFL, 69% of the players are people of color, but there are only three Black head coaches. When Jason Wright was hired last summer by Washington, he became the first Black team president in the NFL’s hundred-year history.

“The numbers, unambiguously, show that it’s not unconscious bias; it’s conscious,” Brown said. “People will say they don’t see color; that’s not true. You do see color. I understand what they mean, but the real question is, what do you see when you see color. Are you seeing a lack of leadership ability?”

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Super Bowl with four black coordinators and two women assistants on head coach Bruce Arians’ staff, and the hope is their success will help change the diversity landscape in the NFL.

“We’re replete with examples to show that diversity and inclusiveness matters,” Brown said. “But people have to have a change of heart, embrace it and just do it.”

And as the conversations continue in the quest for racial equality and diversity, Brown said the only way to make progress is with respectful dialogue.

“Don’t listen to respond — to argue and debate your position,” Brown said. “Listen to learn and understand. That’s a great, simple mantra to follow so that we can move toward what we’re hoping for.”

Dave Johnson

Dave Johnson is Senior Sports Director and morning sports anchor. He first arrived at WTOP in 1989, left in 1992 and returned in 1995. He is a three-time winner of the A.I.R. award as best radio sportscaster in D.C. In 2008 he won the Edward R. Murrow award for best writing for sports commentaries.

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