Muhammad Ali, a fighter, passed last night. He used his fame as a fighter for social justice. Not just for me but for all of us.
I grew up during the 70’s when Muhammad Ali was still boxing. I will tell you he was what we today would call “divisive.” He threw the gold medal he won in 1960 at Rome into the Ohio River as a protest of sorts against overt racism. He converted to Islam at a time when it was considered radical. He was LOUD, articulate and one of the greatest prize fighters ever, a combination most Americans greeted with frustration. After he refused induction into the service, he was widely reviled. Despite these, the one thing Muhammad Ali did, that no one — not even the U.S. government — could take away was his ability to get into that ring, fight and win. It is the starkest form of competition there is.
We don’t hear this much today, but Ali also split the black community. Many felt his position on civil rights was too forward, too much too soon. Some black Americans did not like how Ali promoted himself by portraying some of his opponents … other black prize fighters … as “Uncle Toms” who represented “going along to get along.” Those prize fighters viewed themselves as just prize fighters. We see that same division today, when we have basketball players like LeBron James who have occasionally made social justice stands, and Michael Jordan, who was and still is unwilling to do anything other than sell apparel.
As time moved on and people realized his positions aligned closer to reality, all segments of America revised their opinion of Ali. Americans began believing overt racism as wrong; entering the Vietnam War was a mistake and Islam was viewed as less foreign. In my opinion, Ali’s rehabilitation was complete after he lit the torch at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. To me, the lighting of the torch rates as one of the great moments in American sports history; possibly the most famous Olympian ever coming full circle.
One of the media figures who gave Ali a platform for promotion was Howard Cosell. Cosell recognized Ali’s tactics for what they were … self-promotion and social awareness. While Ali was viewed with disdain, Cosell also received vitriol for giving Ali that platform. Both of them told the American public things they didn’t want to hear.
For me, it’s interesting how people who represent The Establishment — sports and general media — today are praising Ali, while The Establishment of the 1960’s – 1970’s definitely had different views.