CBS Sports’ James Brown shares the day a teacher dashed his dreams & talks NFL diversity
James Brown is the current host of “The NFL Today” on CBS and “Inside The NFL” on Showtime. A three-time Emmy Award-winning network broadcaster, Brown, who was elected into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame in August 2020, has hosted the Super Bowl a record-setting ten times.
In this episode, the award-winning broadcaster vulnerably shares how an elementary school teacher used her words to dash his childhood dreams of becoming a doctor, the lessons he learned about connecting on-air with viewers, how he’s frustrated with how long it’s taking the NFL to tackle its diversity issue, and the big mistake he made showing up to his first interview.
Sh*t I Wish I Knew In My Twenties (SIWIKIMT) is a podcast dedicated to helping 20-somethings thrive in their twenties, not just survive.
Host Debra Alfarone knows how tough being in your twenties can be. As a high-school dropout turned-network-TV-correspondent, she learned most of life’s lessons the hard way. She overcame the odds and now covers the White House for CBS News nationally. She’s also a confidence coach for young women in the TV news industry.
Note: My rescue pup Murray interrupts JB with a barking fit. And of course, JB handles it like a pro.
James: I couldn’t not even complete the tag, Boomer Assayas and my colleague on the set, he had to pick up and complete the tag. Because that’s just when they you know what in the rough and tumble world of sports and especially football, people might say, oh, man, the guys are gonna rip me a new one because I don’t care. That is who I am. It’s the real me. Sorry about that.
Debra: Thank you for listening to Sh*t I Wish I Knew In My Twenties the podcast hosted by a former high school dropout turn network TV correspondent who had no mentors, no big sister to show her the way. So now that I got my life together, I’m here for you. I want to pour into you the life lessons I’ve learned and my guests of course, to help you not just survive, but thrive in your 20s. He’s in the sports broadcasting Hall of Fame. And now he’s on the podcast, everyone. Please meet my friend JB James Brown. Thank you so much for being here.
James: Debra, who would ever say no to you? Thank you very much.
Debra: Do you want to see the list?
James: Gotta be a short one. Obviously, they didn’t know what they were doing.
Debra: That’s right. You are a broadcasting legend. You’re in the sports broadcasting Hall of Fame. You have won Emmys. You are on inside the NFL on Showtime. How many? When do you sleep? JB?
James: Well, you know what? Our colleague, since we’re in the same family, Nate Burleson, has taken it to another level. You guys used to tease me when I was at Fox working with Terry Bradshaw how he long and Jimmie Johnson, the ex cowboys Coach, how he was always say, You know what, you must have some Jamaican blood in you because you got like nine jobs. And I’m like, Hey, I’m just having fun. Enjoy what I’m doing. Marie Marie is only being smart because he is hearing a male voice. And the male voice of the house is out. And it’s like way way Wait, hello, Marie. There’s a funny dog or what’s going on his head? Murray. I’m all good. Okay. Some of the advice I got when I first quote unquote, broken the television, I was a, I auditioned for the job as the analyst for the then named Washington Bullets. And, you know, I didn’t have any training. I knew nothing other than what I learned as a player. So and I’m thinking, Okay, well, let me try to sound smart on TV. And I’m dropping all these multisyllabic expressions and the whole nine yards. I remember calling the TV writer, William Taft, who wrote then for one of the papers in Washington, and he said, JB, you know, what, can you just give us some nickel words, not $5 words. Just be yourself. And it felt so much better. So that was one number. But perhaps the best piece of advice I got was from the producer of The Washington Bullets, games, Sheldon shimmer. He said, JB, when you’re on air, look at the camera. And just be believable. Let people see who the real you is through your eyes. And you know what they will bear with you. When you’re going through your phases of fumbling and stumbling. To find yourself, it will work. So that was the best advice that I got was just to be believable. Because believe me, Debra, I made a number of mistakes along the way. But because I like to believe I was being believable. The audience bore with me through those stumbles and help to encourage me along the way, for when the next opportunity came along.
Debra: And in a world where we are sometimes told we’re not enough, or we need to, or we are on Instagram, and we are comparing ourselves to other people’s wonderful lives and they’re really great lunches. How can we find it within ourselves to just know that we’re enough because that’s really the heart of being believable is being okay with being you.
James: Truths that are still applicable. A truth is timeless. And you know, my high school coach, you said you could only be the second best, Debra Alfarone, but you can be the best yourself, be yourself. Be the number one best that you are and people they will choose whether or not they’re going to like you whether they will go along with you whether or not they’ll give you an opportunity, but to the degree that you try to add some stick to it by being like somebody else. You know what kids young people especially, they can see right through the game. The fluff of You trying to be somebody else? And it’s not pretty. So one I just run the risk of being accepted for who you are. Debra, one of the things I mean, I saw you when you were on local TV here in Washington, I loved and love your personality. I love the heart that you display when you do stories that are, they’re empathetic. You show that there’s a realness to it. It’s not feigned. It’s not like trying to come up and create a tear. It’s you. That’s real world, your boy, as I lovingly refer to myself, I am the biggest softie around. I can cry in a New York minute. I did a story once on CBS, the NFL today. And it was about a player with the Carolina Panthers, who was killed. He was on the back of a pickup truck, and a truck pulled away and you know, he wound up dying. His mom gave, contributed various body parts, if you will, to some other people making life. For them. It so touched me. And Debra, it’s not like we don’t know what the story is. It’s coming up, we go through the rundown, and our production meeting. But when we were on the air live, and that story ran, and that mother was telling this story about how she wanted to give like to others. I couldn’t not even complete the tag, Boomer Assayas and my colleague on the set, he had to pick up and complete the tag, because that’s just when you know what in the rough and tumble world of sports and especially football, people might say, oh, man, the guys are gonna rip me a new one because I don’t care. That is who I am. It’s the real me. Sorry about that.
Debra: So lessons you’ve learned along the way that have made you who you are.
James: Some decades ago, in elementary school, I may have shared this story with you. When I’m at the table, my desk during a free period reading a book entitled, so you want to be a doctor. I’ve always wanted to help people. I wanted to go the pre-med route. But the teacher walking by me not understanding or what will be worse, maybe she did. And did that. She said kids like you don’t do well in math and science, you definitely need to consider a different career. Holy cow crushing words. Words are powerful, potentially life-altering. And to reject somebody is internalized and can in fact haunt them the rest of their lives. And when those kinds of rejections, and if they become numerous, are like seeds planted in the soil of unbelief in yourself can only produce a harvest of failure. And that’s what we’re dealing with that in society right now with too many people who just haven’t been nurtured, encouraged and edified and exhorted along. That was me, thank goodness by middle school, but I struggled for three years fifth grade, sixth grade and got up to the seventh grade. I struggled academically in math and science, until I found two teachers who said, Oh, no, no, no, no, you’ve got the talent, you’ve got the gifts, we will help you develop them, all we need from you is a good old fashioned dose of hard work that changed my trajectory. So Debra, we carry a significant influence in terms of what we do on TV, and for those who are listening to you so that they could find their niche. Understand, you don’t have to accept what one person’s assessment or judgment of you is, find somebody who is gifted at finding out what your talents are how best to teach you, and nurture that and you stay in that circle that train. And the rest is history. And I’m glad to say that I found some good people along the way, who helped me, Debra.
Debra: That resonates with me so much. And my heart breaks for that little boy sitting there that someone would say something so dumb, so hurtful, so uninformed. And I know the pain when those words take root, because I too, heard similar things about myself as a child. And those bad labels, labels that people put on you’re not good enough. You’re not good in science or math. They took root in me and eventually led me to drop out of high school. And it was the people like your your teachers who later said, Hey, we would love to help you and all you need to do is just do some hard work. We see something in you. It was people like that, who I call label whispers who later helped me to get Through, taking my GED, putting myself through college and starting to work in TV news.
James: I think about my high school coach Morgan Wootten at DeMatha, Catholic High School, powerhouse program. 46 years he was the head coach there. They winning his high school coach in the country. During his tenure, became the first coach at the high school level only to be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Some of the world’s greatest coaches John Wooden of UCLA fame, he who won 10 NCAA titles ran our back of NBA fame Hall of Fame, Dean Smith from North Carolina, Mike Krzyzewsk of Duke all saying, he coach Wooten was the finest coach on any level. And he understood it. And he had four simple priorities that he wanted his kids to play for play with in mind, understanding that was a Catholic school. He said God had to be first family, second, school, third, and then your sport. So it’s about priorities. And that’s what every one of the players, those of us who play for Morgan Wilson, we can tell you to this day, what the priorities are. But we also asked him coach, you never cursed at us at all. We never heard you utter a profanity. Why not in an environment where everyone thinks that the key to developing a successful culture or organization is to yell, scream and curse? And he says, No respect, we’ll get it. But he said that what you heard John Wooden also say, the most powerful four letter word that you can use in model is love. Because that old expression that we’ve all heard, many people don’t care how much, you know, until they know how much you care. You and I were talking about that before caring for other people. It’s interesting how that truth will elevate and exalt people better than people only looking out for themselves who can a step on or over to move up the ladder of success? These old timers, you know, well, Warren, some people would call them trite and irrelevant. No, they are truths that make sense. Hey, Debra, look, I’m so impressed with you, even as you talk about that background that you have. And I love hearing the tenacity and the perseverance that you’re displaying. Many people consider a lot of the folks that they see as, quote unquote, overnight successes, I think you’re flat out awesome. And I can’t wait to see where you go to next. It’s not like I’m an expert. But I’ve been at this business for a long time. And I can tell talent, when I can see it. And talent is also comprised of a personality and a caring heart. And you, my friend, have that in spades. Thank you very much.
Debra: I’m really, really touched. Because, you know, you and I both know, my late mentor Bruce Johnson, who saw something in me, Wow, meant the world to me. I mean, it’s very hard to see these things. And so I need a reminder.
James: And you know what, because you just happenstance that our paths crossed, because again, I didn’t know you. I just know you from TV. And yes, and thank you for bringing Bruce Johnson. God bless them back into the picture. Because to hear what he said about you. There was no fluff, no puff in Bruce Johnson. We all know, that is many politicians and movers and shakers have said, when they see Bruce Johnson come up with a microphone and a camera. They’re thinking, Oh, my gosh, they’re thinking 60 minutes. And Bruce, his aim was never to embarrass anyone. It was a resolute kind of a intrepid reporter attitude of only pursuing What’s the truth here? And he asked the natural questions. You know, it wasn’t again to offend him to hurt. He asked the questions, and they were tough questions, but they were all again centered on what the truth is. And you know what, and we can’t try to be like somebody else. Because again, as I already said, it’s a trade expression. You can only be the second best, somebody else will be the first best you but I’m thinking about when you talk about honesty and caring. I was once moderating, leading and hosting a leadership Speakers Series. Some great speakers back in the day, the personal development guru Tony Robbins, President George Bush 43. It was a Don Shula, the great football coach with Miami, and General Norman Schwarzkopf, leader of a Desert Storm. And I remember Amber’s General Schwarzkopf talking to some titans of industry, folks who are gifted beyond belief. And he said, interestingly, as he’s talking to these other corporate leaders, and I was humbled to just be a part of it the moderate with him. He said he had done his homework and done some research to understand what was the common thread of those who failed at the top of corporate America. And he said, overwhelmingly, it was not due to the lack of their impressive skill sets, their leadership skills, their problem-solving skills, their quick intellect in mind, quick thinking, it was a faith lacked two key virtues, character, and integrity. I said, Are you kidding me? Absolutely. So they are foundational to success. One of the oh, one of the sermons that I love to give in reference is about the importance of a foundation, that a foundation, a solid foundation, by definition, has to be one that’s on rock. Now, obviously, in a biblical context, you know exactly what I’m referencing, but it’s got to be on rock. Because as the proverbial parable goes, if it’s built on sand, that house in a storm will fall. I love to use the Washington Monument as the example. You’re looking at that superstructure, the tallest of the landmarks in Washington, DC, the tallest building in Washington, DC, that is with storm, the metaphor, metaphorically speaking, the winds, the storms and the rain beating against it, but it’s not the superstructure. That’s the key to its sturdiness. It’s the foundation, the workers had to go down four stories deep to build a rock solid foundation, which oh, by the way, at the earthquake that I believe, center somewhere around Richmond that had the after shots that all we felt all the way up here in Washington, DC. It cracked, but it didn’t fall. So that’s what General Norman Schwarzkopf was stating. Now, let me add one more to me. And these are standbys that I really find useful in giving speeches, if you will. Former American President Theodore Roosevelt made it clear in terms of what General Norman Schwarzkopf was saying. He’s saying, to educate in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society. Whoa, how powerful was that? And but yet people won’t talk about it. We know the old expression, if you don’t know your history, then you’re bound to repeat it again as well. And what we’re faced with at the public square, with people not talking with each other, they’re shouting at each other all the vitriol that there’s spewing at each other, and that chasm is growing wider and wider. Oh, my gosh, there’s some basic and trite expressions, how can two walk together unless they be agreed? A house divided will fall?
Debra: What’s your best tip for really working as a team and getting along with other people when it’s not that easy sometimes?
James: To me, undergirding that is an athletic maxim that speaks again, across the spectrum. You know, there’s an example that’s used in scripture that talks about how the human body is comprised of many different parts, your head knows your hand, fingers, kneecaps, the whole nine yards, but it says, every joint supplies for the fervent effectual working of the whole body, every part plays a role, you may think your little finger is insignificant. I once heard this comes courtesy of Bishop Clarence, which is named Charles, out in California Blake. And he said, If you think your little finger doesn’t play an important role, I know this is humorous. He says, I want you to go out in the parking lot. Open up the door to your car, put your finger in the air and slam that door on your little finger. And about three seconds, your feet are going to get involved. As you’re jumping up and down. your tear ducts are going to get involved, you will start crying, you’ll start biting your bottom lip, every joint supplies and if one part of your body hurts the other, I love the expression in lowliness of mind is steam others more highly than yourself. The World Man expression is it’s a rising tide that lifts all ships, we can be successful. If no one cares who gets the credit? It’s about all of us together. And certainly, any championship team will show you that if you got a selfish teammate out there who’s looking only out for him or herself in a New York minute, which is about 32 seconds will We’ll get pretty upset. If in fact, you’re thinking only about yourself, it only makes sense. If you’re pouring into somebody else, it really does feel pretty doggone good, because the opportunity is going to come at some point where you will get to play that key role to contribute to the success of the team. So happy to see that. I’m hoping that we are more enlightened as a society to understand that those who are ignorant, unmindful of what team dynamics are, who are blinded by their own ignorance to see that gifts and talents come in all different shades, different strata of society, gender, male, female, give me a break. I know and I can only reference two years ago, I guess it was on the Super Bowl shocked that my boss, the chairman of CBS Sports, asks me to deliver a commentary that had to deal with at the time with the lack of diversity in leadership positions, not only in terms of head coaches of color, but women in the C suite, executive level positions. You know what, for the narrow-minded, myopic-minded who only see that or see it associated with gender, shame on them, because they’re missing a whole realm of gifts and talents out there that can take you to the next level. 200 years ago when I was working in corporate America at Xerox specifically. And I had a sales team. That was seven out of 10 of the salespeople were women. And a good number of them were schoolteachers, school teachers, make the best salespeople because they can explain things to a wide variety of people appealing to how best they learn in very succinct. I love to call it Colombo fashion. So you get it. They turned out to be the best salespeople people, not only on my sales team, the government education and medical market at Xerox, but some of the best in our branch, if you will, women get it when I would, we’re talking about women on board seats. Heavens, men, can’t you understand that you’re dead men your own way, you know what you’re hurting yourself by your own limitations of thinking and overlooking gifts and talents, where they are men of color in terms of the head coaching positions, women in the C suite and those of color as well in the C suite. It represents a diversity of input. And we truly are stronger because of the differences we bring to the table than the same homogenous mix.
Debra: What do we do to really walk further towards equality?
James: I’m hoping especially amongst the population, you were singling out properly. So because you don’t hear and to receive the same hang-ups. The same division’s segmentation amongst that group that you do with older folks, which still suggest in many cases absolutely speaks to an ingrained mindset that is very divisive along those lines. And that’s hurtful, because, again, you’re missing out on some talent. I would hope that with respect to our young folks, that as you move into the senior decision-influencing and decision-making positions, that you yourself will be broader-minded. You know what you talked about the NFL, and what’s abundantly clear in this, and it’s the truth and the truth may hurt. But it’s abundantly clear, don’t tell me that something that there isn’t a more significant priority than having an organization that’s reflective of the community that you’re in. that’s reflective of the talents and gifts that are spread across the spectrum. Don’t tell me that when de facto, the numbers do not support that over a long period of time. We’re talking decades, we’re talking generations. And one of the worst expressions, wording responses that the effective population can hear from somebody in a position of influence to change that is to say, it’s going to take time. Excuse me, can we understand what does that mean? Let’s put that in perspective. Is a generation which is 40 years is that enough? Are we looking at that which has gone over the course of centuries? Is that long enough? What exactly are your taught? What are you talking about? You know what you just the old Nike expression Just do it. And the fact that people will put in place rules and regulations, legislations, trying to law. The fact of the matter is, you cannot legislate love. You can’t legislate an open and caring mind. You can’t legislate an open mind to see talent where it exists, unless you’re exposed to it and just do the right thing. So if we can just be honest with ourselves, come to grips with it. Yes, it’s still a problem. Please understand, we can articulate certain things. But it’s always that the proof is in the pudding.
Debra: How do you reconcile this existing issue with the NFL? Does it fester with you? Or is it just incumbent upon you to keep talking about it?
James: Look, I’ll be the first to say this. Many people I understand that Roger Goodell gets a lot of eggs and bricks and brickbats thrown his way. Let me speak this from truth. And they’re going to people who rapidly disagree with me, and I disagree with you. If I were to agree with you, then we both be wrong. I know this for a fact, I’ve worked on situations, he asked me to be a part of a group going in to meet with the owners subcommittee talking about this very issue. The person who left out of that subcommittee meeting, recognizing how entrenched this problem is, and how it’s been that way for a minute, was a woman, the park owner, the co owner of the Buffalo Bills, Miss Pegula. And when she heard all this and was taking copious notes, I was sitting right next to her, she went back to her organization, sat down with Leslie Frazier, the African American defensive coordinator, to scrub through every facet of the organization to understand because the culture of an organization is key to winning, yes, there are those who win in a counter-culture in a fashion. That’s not the majority of them. The ones that I see who are doing it well, and are on the ascendancy, and in fact did win last year, like the Rams did, or those who recognize that they care for their players, their players have some input have a decision making influence for sure. Look, you’ve got very talented people out there. And the fact of the matter is, here’s another one I know folks, oh JB Debra, don’t have him on again. But here’s the expression, that which is done in the dark, will ultimately come to the light. And it ain’t very pretty. When it does come to the light. Just look around, and you can count for yourself the situations where that truth is manifesting itself. My sweet mate in college was a doctor Cornell West, one of the most I know and loves people, you may differ with him in terms of politics in the light, and I understand that, but you can’t fault him for he has got a big, loving heart. And one of the most brilliant people that I know, but the bigger heart, actually trumps that. You know what? And he oftentimes will reference the title of a song, encapsulating what the issue is, you’re absolutely right, we got that. Sometimes it’s like Marvin Gaye says it makes you want to holler, scream and holler. But you continue to move and advocate for what you know, is the truth and the panacea for it. And don’t stop until it happens when we look back over the kind of changes whether it’s from the women’s suffrage, you know, however many eons ago, civil rights, women being put in positions and having long since earned the right to be in those positions. It takes consistent and persistent and togetherness, an ecumenical effort and going after those changes, I think about the Civil Rights Act. And you know what, it really became a really powerful driving force. When many people around the world saw the images of those women in their Sunday dresses at the church, and the little girls with the little colored ribbons in their hair, being beaten with billy clubs, attack dogs, sick on him, and beaten with billy clubs, people around the world, as we’ve done with this very close-knit, global community now because of the internet and satellite, the whole nine yards. They simply said, now that’s not right. And you know what, so it goes beyond what color you want. Are would race, you know what? Socio economic strata. There are some things that supersede all that. And that’s what we all should be able to rally around. That’s not right. Let’s do something about it.
James: There’s no such thing as standing still no neutral, you’re either getting better, or you’re regressing. And that explains why I didn’t get a chance to realize my dream of playing professional basketball. Because when I got to college, I didn’t realize it subconsciously, because it creeps up on you. If you’re not putting in the same or greater effort to get better and perfect what is a weakness and keep the strength sharpened and ready for it – then what you’re doing is regressing and you don’t make up even though I was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks, and Pete Maravich, God bless them and all the big name players were like, Hey, man, you’re doing it. Okay. I had no control over the matter from his standpoint, who the coach was going to select. Though he did tell me years later, he made a mistake and should have kept me on the team. But I blame myself. People can point a finger of blame, and their three pointing right back at you. I failed to work as hard as I did to get to the top and stay on top. I didn’t do that that was on me. So continue to sharpen that craft and be ready because the opportunity will come. The question is, will you be ready?
Debra: Do you remember a worst date, a worst job or a worst outfit in your 20s?
James: So I got cut by the Atlanta Hawks. I remember those big time alum sent me over to IBM for an interview. And I hadn’t done my homework. I didn’t research to understand that. This particular organization, very conservative culture. The colors need to be understated blue suits, white shirts, blue or red tie, etc. neatly trimmed hair. Deborah, I go over to the interview. I’ve got this velvet blue Bama bow tie on. I’ve got to play it. I got a powder, blue shirt, plaid, blue suit, forefoot high afro, thick, mutton chop sideburns, thick stack heeled shoes, and a shoulder bag. You may as well call it a purse. I went over to IBM for an interview like this. And the guy comes out of his office and he’s like, James Brown, Harvard University, 3.0 grade point average, you know, Harvard speaker’s bureau, captain of the basketball team. And he looked at me. And he looked back at his assistant and said, Where’s James Brown, and I stood up and I said, Here I am. And he looked at me, his expression was worth 1000 words. He called me back into his office, he said, Young man, if I didn’t know the alum who sent you over here for the interview, I would have carried you through maybe a five-minute perfunctory interview and bounced you out of here. And I said, bounce me out of here, why? He looked at me with incredulity. Why? Look at yourself. Do you understand anything about this environment? Here? You represent our culture? And the way you look? Does that represent that I wouldn’t send you out, you know, to the corner grocery store to do any representation of us. He said, conservative, neat attire is always appropriate. So from that point, I went radically to the other side, because it did change how I dress and what I do. And I remember working at Fox, and the guys invited me to a party down in Marina Del Rey, and again to the to the beach party. And I had a tuxedo and top hat on there for the beach party. So a little exaggeration, but the point is, yeah, I learned the hard way, because I was definitely out of it. If there’s always a point where you understand to dress appropriately for the environment that you’re in, and if that really grates you and that just doesn’t meet with you. That’s cool. Then you pursue something different, but you don’t go in making noise and screaming and hollering about the dress code. And here you’re trying to get a job there is wish this picture existed. Me too. There. I’ve got some back in the other family photo album that that will pretty close to it. Especially my collegiate days when I look this is when I had a chest and everything I got my little you know, whatever. The little flash shirt was buttoned all the way down to the navel and I got my hair, you know, out here and I got the wild colors on. Probably what do you call those jeans that are faded out? What do you call them? Like, like, acid, thank you for acid wash jeans. I mean, I’m up here. I looked a mess, but thank goodness, they the bosses, the administrators, they bore with me as I grew out of that. Now I’m just trying to get a little bit of that hair back.
Debra: Everyone that is a lot of “beep” you wish you knew in your 20s! Amazing. Make sure you hit subscribe if you haven’t already. Tell a friend. leave a review. It helps more than you know. You can also watch this interview on YouTube. Follow us on Insta and Tiktok at Debra Alfarone for more. I wish I knew in my 20s and drop your email to be the first to know about new episodes and guess what? I’ll send you my free GTFO Confidence Guide just drop your email at pages dot Debra alfarone.com Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.
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