Ron Brown, outspoken and concerned citizen, dragged Ron Brown, Nebraska assistant football coach, into the news again.
He gave an interview to the Associated Press the other day, and the topic was the furor he caused in March when he spoke to the Omaha City Council about a ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation. At the meeting, Brown spoke with passion, from the heart, quoting the bible, making no mistake for his disdain for homosexuality.
Now, this is in itself not news. I’ve had several readers wonder why I hadn’t opined on this, and, to be honest, I did. Last month. Last fall. Five years ago. Ten years ago. Fifteen. This was not Brown’s first rodeo, or, public hearing. His feelings and pulpit are mobile and well-chronicled.
But this time, it looks and sounds and feels different. And it seems we’re headed to an intersection, a showdown, a resolution of some sort, between Brown and NU, employee and employer. Something has to change. It’s inevitable.
First, let’s go back to the AP story. There were a couple of things in the story that were news. Different. For one, there was Brown’s quote saying it would be a greater honor to be fired for his religious beliefs than for losing games (and Brown was part of an NU staff that was fired in 2002). Brown also admitted that times are different, and the possibility that his public appearances could get him fired. Haven’t heard that before.
The story also raises the issue of a city council meeting in Lincoln debating the exact same discrimination topic that took place in Omaha, and the possibility that Brown could make an appearance there. Brown said he was going to pray on it.
You can be sure that the local Omaha and Lincoln media will be at that meeting, anticipating a citizen/coach Brown sighting. His presence would be the big story.
And that’s where we come to the intersection of Brown’s future at NU.
I’m a Ron Brown fan. I don’t agree with everything he says. But I respect the man and I cherish his convictions, in a day and age when morals blow with the wind and too many folks have the backbone of a jellyfish and the courage of an anonymous comment on the blog.
Brown has been consistent in his convictions and beliefs for the 20-some years I’ve covered him, and gotten to know him. He’s been speaking out and attending so many meetings, for so many years, quoting the good book and suggesting how folks should live their lives, that he’s become a bit of a caricature of himself.
Then came last November. When the spotlight shone down on him on a sunny, emotional Saturday in Happy Valley, Pa., Brown was the same then, too. He united spirits that day. Of course, when he came to Omaha, he wasn’t in the uniting spirit. It’s complicated. But Brown is who he is, take him or leave it.
Nebraska has taken him, except when Steve Pederson/Bill Callahan cut him loose. Brown was hired back by Bo Pelini in 2008 and everyone at NU knew the package that came with Brown. And that’s the important thing to know here: whatever you think Brown is today, Nebraska helped create that over the years. By standing by him. By tolerating his opinions. By granting him the freedom to be Ron Brown, citizen.
I’ve always said bravo to that. As long as Brown is not representing NU, not wearing an “N” on his shirt or giving his address as Memorial Stadium, etc., he should be allowed to speak his mind in the public forum.
By the same token, the university has the right to tell him to stuff a sock in it, or fire him, if it deems that Brown has gone over the line.
Here’s the rub with citizen Brown and coach Brown: the line is too often blurred between the two. Brown is noteworthy in this state because he’s a football coach. That’s why the AP wrote about him. Why Sports Illustrated chimed in. Why he made the national papers this week. If he wasn’t a Nebraska football coach, nobody would care what he had to say. That’s the truth.
So it’s a fine line Brown walks, and he’s walked that walk, as well as talked the talk, through the years. But now, again, we see the tightrope is higher, and more tenuous, than ever.
These are different times, times of less tolerance, and that includes Brown and his message at the city council. These are less politically correct times, to be sure. Emotions are more volatile and folks are more apt to take action.
Would a booster or two of considerable substance pick up the phone and call chancellor Harvey Perlman and tell him to sit on Brown? Sure. Maybe it’s already happened. Who knows?
Would a recruit’s family tell their son that he won’t be attending Dear Ol’ NU because of the preacher coach and his message? Sure. Could happen. Personally, I see how the opposite effect could happen, too. Some parents might see a coach with fortitude, a real man of his word, willing to get fired for what he believed in. To a lot of folks, old-school parents, that’s the definition of character. Of a leader. And they might want their son to be around some of that.
So you have to be careful painting a broad brush around Brown and his impact. Different strokes for different folks.
But it’s fair to ask whether, at some point, Brown could become bad for business at NU. That’s always the tipping point, in any business, and universities are about business, make no mistake. When or if that happens, then push will come to shove.
It’s also fair to wonder whether Brown or NU should sit down and come up with a compromise. Should Brown dial it back? Maybe skip the Lincoln meeting and stay out of the news? Should NU sit on him more?
Both ideas seem disingenuous at this point. Nebraska has given Brown lots of leash to do his thing over the years. And, again, Brown is who he is. He can’t be someone else.
I don’t know the answer. I do think Brown, as an employee, could have an awareness of the impact of his appearances, of his statements, on his employer. Stop using football references in his speeches or on his radio shows. I do think he could miss a meeting or two. He’s certainly made his points over the years.
What Brown needs to avoid is becoming the story, the big story, and a big pain to his university.
Brown is going to pray on whether to attend the Lincoln city council meeting. If you’re a Ron Brown fan, pray he makes the right decision.