America’s relationship with sports, more specifically sports heroes, is one of convenience and greed. Our memories of the greats are often served in palatable bits and pieces. This sentiment has been all over various social platforms since the untimely passing of the beloved Muhammad Ali.
It’s hard to say that the loss of Ali is sad because he lived a full life. But his death certainly calls attention to the collective conscience of America.
Ali spent nearly a third of his life suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. To watch the champ — whose physique was truly a marvel in his prime — slowly deteriorate over such a long time is gut-wrenching. When I look at how this massive personality of a man shrank into relative seclusion, it’s reminiscent of how we tend to treat our legends after the sport they dedicated their lives to end.
The second aspect is related to the pervasive disconnect that exists with the media and its relationships with athletes; particularly black athletes.
Since his death, sportswriters, analysts, and celebrities have memorialized Muhammad Ali through photographs, personal anecdotes, and revisiting profiles that recount Ali’s influence as a global icon. He was not only a champion in boxing, he was a champion for an entire generation of black male athletes to come.
His arrogance, his mannerisms, his trash-talking, and ultimately, his dominance can be found in elite athletes in all of the major sports. However, as we praise Ali’s legacy, I can’t but help to notice that that type of athlete — one who is outspoken, unafraid, and passionate about his blackness — could not freely exist in today’s climate.
The archetype and blueprint set by Ali is routinely attacked and the subject of “thinkpieces” with the purpose of trying to repress and limit the athlete’s voice.
I came across an interesting piece while perusing my Twitter TL which called to memory a specific incident that perfectly illustrates how we (the populous) don’t truly appreciate the athlete who chooses to demonstrate his beliefs that way Ali did.
Sometime last summer, former Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones was tweeting about the suspicious death of Sandra Bland; a woman who died in police custody in Texas. Given the amount of coverage of the state-sanctioned violence occurring on a weekly basis against people of color, it came as no surprise that Jones showed a genuine interest in the case. During his tweet-storm, a fan (who was a middle-aged white male) said “worry about getting us fans another championship…stay out of this bullshit! #GoBucks”.
The “bullshit” the fan was referring to was the BLM movement. The fan couldn’t separate Jones — the young and aware black man who is very much viewed as a threat in society — from the black quarterback whose only existence is to win championships for his school. The fan isn’t alone in his focus nor is he alone in the expectation that black athletes should shut up and play.
American sports fans are uncomfortable with black athletes who don’t kneel and bow in submission. Fans don’t encourage athletes to lend their voice or influence to social activism or the disenfranchised. When a black athlete decides to rebuff the status quo, the media antagonizes and tries to demonize him — as was done with Marshawn Lynch. The same bravado that we’re revering the late great Ali for is the same bravado we chastise players like Richard Sherman and Cam Newton for.
When news broke of Ali’s passing, I didn’t immediately think about his boxing career. I recalled all of the events of social significance away from the boxing ring that shaped his legacy. His response for refusing to be drafted during the Vietnam War will forever ring in my ear.
The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality…. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow.
He put his freedom over the self-indulgence of winning. He held true to his values and fought for what was right through the eyes of a black man who knew all too well the systemic violence inflicted upon citizens who had no power to fight back.
Ali’s biggest fight wasn’t against Joe Frazier or Sonny Liston. People tend to let their love for America allow them to blindly rewrite history. Ali didn’t dodge the draft. He simply said no to being a pawn in the game America has historically played with black bodies suffering the most.
We don’t have athletes like Muhammad Ali in modern times. They exercise their right to speak freely however there’s an invisible line that they are cautious to not cross. On the rare occasion that one does take that leap, they observe how lonely it is to be a man of great character. For some, they make no apologies and stand by their positions. Still others, find that isolation too much to bear. They don’t want to lose fans, offend fans, or effect the bottom line.
While Ali is a role model for the modern day black athlete, his similarities have only been observed not copied.
We cherish the imprint Muhammad Ali left culturally and athletically. Nonetheless, it’s sad that we don’t have a climate today where an athlete can be as free and as liberated as Ali lived.