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Muhammad Ali on Sports and Politics



Sports Columnist Dave Zirin on Muhammad Ali’s Career and His Groundbreaking Political Involvement

Sports columnist Dave Zirin has written a new account of the career and politics of boxing legend Muhammad Ali. In his prime, Ali was an outspoken advocate of the Black Muslim movement and a critic of the Vietnam War. [includes rush transcript]

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Story Jun 10, 2016 Dave Zirin on the Whitewashing of Muhammad Ali: He Wasn’t Against Just War, But Empire
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AMY GOODMAN : We end today with a new look at the boxing legend Muhammad Ali. Ali is considered the greatest boxer in the history of sports. In his prime, he was an outspoken advocate of the Black Muslim movement, a critic of the Vietnam War. He was sentenced to prison and stripped of his heavyweight title for refusing to fight in Vietnam.

NEWS ANCHOR : Cassius Clay, at a federal court in Houston, is found guilty of violating the U.S. Selective Service laws by refusing to be inducted. He is sentenced to five years in prison and fined $10,000.

AMY GOODMAN : An excerpt that came from the documentary When We Were Kings. Sports columnist Dave Zirin has written the book, the Muhammad Ali Handbook. It’s a new account of Ali’s career and his groundbreaking political involvement. Dave writes the weekly column, “Edge of Sports,” and is a regular contributor to The Nation magazine, joining us here in our firehouse studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!

DAVID ZIRIN : Great to be here, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN : Before we talk about Muhammad Ali, I want to go back to the top story today: Don Imus’s comments disparaging the Rutgers basketball team and Maretta Short of NOW talking about this being the 35th anniversary of Title IX. Can you talk more about this, because this is something you’ve written extensively about?

DAVID ZIRIN : Absolutely. When Title IX was first put into play back in the early 1970s, roughly one out of 29 girls in middle school, junior high school, high school, played sports. Today, that number is roughly one out of three. And so, statistics show that young girls who play sports at an early age are actually less likely to end up in abusive relationships, less likely to have eating disorders, less likely to have issues with drugs and alcohol. So you’re talking about legislation, a direct result of the women’s movement of the late ླྀs and early 󈨊s, that has benefited the lives of tens of millions of women in this country. And the fact that it's something that both George W. Bush and Chief Justice John Roberts have both said that they opposed, I think is something that we all should be very aware of on this anniversary of this incredible legislation.

AMY GOODMAN : And your thoughts on Don Imus, whether he should be fired?

DAVID ZIRIN : Oh, I think he should be canned like a tuna. I mean, I think I speak for a lot of people when I say I’m just so sick and tired of the shock jocks, of the Coulters, of the Imuses, being able to say whatever they want to say and then reaping the publicity from that, and then being able to just apologize and go on with a slight bump in their ratings.

But I’ll tell you something that’s bothersome to me, and this is why, really, I wrote the Muhammad Ali Handbook, is the silence from the world of sports. I mean, with all due respects to Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, I wanted to hear the rise of voices from NBA players, from WNBA players, from NBA Commissioner David Stern, from all the people who were offended by what Imus said. The sports world needs to have its own progressive milieu to respond to things like this.

I mean, look how political the world of sports is, everything from Pat Tillman to gay athletes to this issue. I mean, it’s so infused with politics. Yet, too often, politics is verboten for athletes. I have spoken in the last week to NBA and WNBA players who were repulsed by what Don Imus said. But the idea of speaking out is such a foreign concept that it makes Ali’s history all the more relevant for today: the athlete who would not be silenced.

AMY GOODMAN : Let’s talk about Muhammad Ali and what he would say out loud.

DAVID ZIRIN : What Ali would say out loud would be &mdash well, he certainly would say, I think, “I have a quarrel with Don Imus.” I mean, and he would say &mdash you know, even say, “I ain’t got no quarrel with the sisters at Rutgers University.” I mean, that’s the thing about Muhammad Ali in the 1960s that’s so incredible. I mean, he finished in the bottom 1 percent of his high school class. He barely graduated from high school. Yet, on all the important social issues of the day, on the edge of the black freedom struggle, on the Vietnam War, while all the best and the brightest were talking about “all deliberate speed” for integration and talking about war in Vietnam, Muhammad Ali knew what side he was on, time and again. He knew there was right, and he knew there was wrong. And because he had that direct connection both to a black political tradition that was antiwar, through people like Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad, Marcus Garvey, and also because his own family came from the black working class in the South, he knew which side he was on, on a series of these questions, when the leading edge of politics, of the so-called “experts,” were so patently wrong.

AMY GOODMAN : I wanted to play another clip highlighting Muhammad Ali’s political beliefs. This, a clip from When We Were Kings, the documentary about Ali’s 1974 championship bout with George Foreman in Kinshasa that came to be known as the “Rumble in the Jungle.”

MUHAMMAD ALI : Yeah, I’m in Africa. Yeah, Africa is my home. Damn America and what America thinks! Yeah, I live in America, but Africa is the home of the black man, and I was a slave 400 years ago, and I’m going back home to fight among my brothers. Yeah!

AMY GOODMAN : That was Muhammad Ali speaking in 1974.

DAVID ZIRIN : Absolutely. And, you know, going back to that Kinshasa fight, I think it’s a great example of the redemptive power of Muhammad Ali, because by that time he was somebody who, you know, had returned to the world of boxing, had fought off through the Supreme Court a five-year prison sentence given down to him by the federal courts, an outrageously high sentence for a draft resister at the time, and by the end, after that fight, he was named “Sportsman of the Year” by Sports Illustrated. So he makes this amazing journey from being the most vilified, hated athlete in the history of the United States &mdash and I don’t think there’s any contention about that &mdash to becoming a figure of reconciliation, who was invited by Gerald Ford to the White House to shake hands. And that’s the thing about Ali, is that he was always bound up in the rhythms of the social movements of the day. So in the ླྀs he becomes a figure that's beloved by the antiwar movement and the black freedom struggle, hated by the mainstream, yet as the movements died in the 󈨊s, he became a figure of bringing those two worlds back together.

AMY GOODMAN : This is another clip of Muhammad Ali, again from When We Were Kings, also before the fight with George Foreman.

MUHAMMAD ALI : I’m going to fight for the prestige, not for me, but to uplift my little brothers who are a sleeping on concrete floors today in America, black people who are living on welfare, black people who can’t eat, black people who don’t know no knowledge of themselves, black people who don’t have no future. I want to win my title and walk down the alleys, settle in the garbage can with the wineheads. I want to walk down the street with the dope addicts, talk to the prostitutes so I can help a lot of the people.

I can show them films. I can take this documentary. I can take movies and help organize my people in Louisville, Kentucky, Indianapolis, Indiana, Cincinnati, Ohio. I can go through [inaudible] and Florida and Mississippi and show the little black Africans in them countries, who didn’t know this is their country. You look like people in Mississippi, in Alabama and Georgia. They’re your brother, but they never knew you was over here, and you don’t know much about them. God has blessed me [inaudible] through boxing to help get to all these people and to show them films that I haven’t seen. I know they haven’t seen them. I’m well, and I haven’t seen them. Now I can go get all these films. You governments can let me take pictures. You can let me do things, and I can take all this back to America. But it’s good to be a winner. All I go to do is whoop George Foreman.

AMY GOODMAN : That’s right, that was Muhammad Ali, right before the fight with George Foreman in 1974.

DAVID ZIRIN : Yeah, and what I can’t help think about, hearing this, is about how distanced a lot of the star athletes are today from that kind of mindset, of saying, “I’m fighting for the people in the &mdash for the winos, for the dopeheads, for the people who live in the gutter, for the people who are told that they can never amount to anything. You know, LeBron James, who’s the most famous player in the National Basketball Association, still only 22 years old, was asked in an interview about his career aspirations, and he said at the same time that he wanted to be a global icon like Muhammad Ali and that he wanted to be the first athlete billionaire. Now, if you actually know the history, those two ideas are so in conflict with one another, yet because all LeBron James knows is that Muhammad Ali is famous for being famous, that’s what LeBron James knows. And because few people have had their political teeth extracted like Muhammad Ali &mdash I mean, he’s been the victim of a political root canal &mdash so the hope for this book is to try to restore the teeth to what Muhammad Ali actually stood for in the 󈨀s.

AMY GOODMAN : I wanted to ask you about Gary Tyler. We did a broadcast with the New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, talking about his case. Explain how you’re organizing with athletes.

DAVID ZIRIN : Yes. I mean, first of all &mdash

AMY GOODMAN : And explain his case quickly.

DAVID ZIRIN : Absolutely. Gary Tyler, he’s been in Angola prison, a former slave plantation, for 32 years. The case against him is spotty, to put it mildly. I believe he’s innocent, looking at the evidence in the case. Bob Herbert believes he’s innocent, looking at the evidence of the case. And I read Bob Herbert’s three columns published over the course of a month in The New York Times, and I heard him on your show, Amy, and when I heard this, I tried to ask myself, “Well, what can I do to help?” I mean, it was so stark and so upsetting, Gary Tyler’s story.

So, you know, my little corner of the world is the intersection of athletes and politics. So I put out a call. I wrote a letter, calling it “Jocks for Justice,” sent it out to some athletes, and I wanted to see who would be willing to sign on and if we could get some publicity by doing a public statement. And I’ve got to tell you, one of the things that was really shocking about it is, usually getting in touch with former athletes, with famous athletes, it’s like trying to get in touch with Don Corleone, like you have to talk to the guy who knows the guy who knows the guy just to talk to somebody. And it was so striking to me how people just got back to me so quickly, the older athletes, people like Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, Tommy Smith and John Carlos, former Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton and Red Sox all-star Bill “Spaceman” Lee. They remembered Gary’s case from the early 󈨊s, and immediately they got back to me: “Sign me on.”

Some of the younger athletes, people like Etan Thomas for the Washington Wizards, or Toni Smith, the woman basketball player who made her stand protesting the war at Manhattanville College. They, like me, needed to be educated on the case, because it has been so forgotten over the last 30 years. But when they heard about it, I mean, it was just like &mdash it has that feel of a movement right now, and they were on board.

AMY GOODMAN : And just again, for those who didn’t hear our broadcast of the case of Gary Tyler, Gary Tyler is the man who’s been in prison now since he was 16 years old, his case being called one of the great miscarriages of justice in modern history in the United States. He’s the African American jailed in 1974 for a murder many believe he didn’t commit, an all-white jury convicting him based entirely on the statement of four witnesses who have later recanted their testimony.

I want to thank you very much, Dave Zirin, for joining us. The new book is called Muhammad Ali Handbook. Howard Zinn has called Dave Zirin a “talented sportswriter with a social conscience.”


A lifetime of money problems

When Muhammad Ali died in 2017, his son's financial struggles were seemingly alleviated, but his personal sttuggles continued. According to Inside Edition, Ali Sr. left each of his children $6 million. Ali Jr.'s wife Shaakira reported that her husband hadn't returned to their Chicago apartment after his father's funeral, leaving her "totally heartbroken" after years of her paying the bills while Ali Jr. "only had odd jobs, cutting grass, or gardening for neighbors" during their 11 years of marriage. In 2019, The Sun reported that Muhammad Ali Jr. was taking legal action to "get a bigger slice" of his father's fortune, noting he received just over $1,000 monthly, as opposed to a projected $6.45 million he would get "if the boxer's fortune was split equally between nine kids and [Ali Sr.'s wife] Lonnie," which implies that he didn't receive millions upon his father's death.

Ali Jr. made additional headlines in 2017 when he and his mother, who changed her name to Khalilah Camacho Ali during her marriage to Muhammad Ali, testified on Capitol Hill, per NBC News. They were detained at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport when returning from Jamaica just days into President Donald Trump's executive order restricting travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. Mother and son both testified that they'd been separated and questioned about their religion and their names, even after they shared their relationships with Ali Sr. The two have since organized a campaign, "Step Into the Ring," opposing Trump's Muslim ban.


Shawn Green Chooses Religion Over Baseball

Albert Pujols was not the first baseball player to stand up and acknowledge his important religious beliefs.

As a devout Jewish believer Green did not play on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calender. Jews believe the day should be celebrated with fasting and prayer.

The major religious holiday usually falls in mid to late September.

This is also when baseball pennant races are at there height.

Throughout his long and respected career, Green refused to play in games which fell on Yom Kipper. Green, an all-star right fielder for the Blue Jays, Dodgers and Mets sat out regardless of his team's need for his bat or their position in a September pennant race.

His religion was more important to him.


How Muhammad Ali influenced the Civil Rights Movement

Muhammad Ali galvanised the Civil Rights Movement by appealing to people who otherwise agreed on little politically.

The death of Muhammad Ali provides us with an opportunity to reflect on his impact on the freedom struggle that has come to be known as the Civil Rights Movement.

Muhammad Ali’s influence on the black organisers who formed the backbone of the Civil Rights Movement was distinctly positive and remarkably broad-based. His power as a heroic symbol bridged the entire span of the movement’s ideological spectrum. In ways that nobody else could, Ali appealed simultaneously to people and organisations who otherwise agreed on little politically. In the words of one organiser, Bob Moses, “Muhammad Ali galvanised the Civil Rights Movement.”

Almost every major civil rights organisation and leader at one time or another praised Ali and defended his decision to resist the Vietnam War.

Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr and Muhammad Ali

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) James Bevel rated him as “one of the great Americans”. The Congress of Racial Equality’s (CORE) Floyd McKissick said: “Ali was one of the greatest living Americans because he is one of the few people who lives by his convictions.”

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) printed bumper stickers that said “We’re the greatest” in an obvious nod to Ali’s catchphrase. Stokely Carmichael, the Trinidadian-American political activist, called him “my hero”.

But Malcolm X was perhaps the first to realise that Ali’s magnitude registered far beyond his home country. In his famous autobiography, Malcolm declared that Ali “captured the imagination and support of the entire dark world”.

Even Martin Luther King Jr sent him a telegram saying: “I look forward to talking with you some time in the future.”

Arthur Ashe, the tennis player-turned-activist, remembered that Ali was “admired by a lot of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, who were sometimes even a little bit jealous of the following he had”.

And this is just a short list of contemporary leaders in the black freedom struggle who expressed their on-the-record admiration for Ali.

It is not an overstatement to say he was almost universally liked by the activists of the 1960s and 1970s.

The Nation of Islam

An impressive aspect of Ali’s appeal to these freedom fighters is that it occurred despite Ali’s membership in the Nation of Islam, led by Elijah Muhammad, which was for years the African American organisation that was by far the most vehemently critical of the Civil Rights Movement.

Early on, when Ali first won the heavyweight title, some civil rights leaders and activists were upset by his joining of the Nation. Roy Wilkins, of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), said that Ali “may as well be an honorary member of the [racist] white citizen councils”.

The SNCC’s Julian Bond, who would come to greatly admire Ali, said that his membership in the Nation of Islam “was not something many of us particularly liked”.

But even though Elijah Muhammad demanded political non-participation from his adherents, preventing them even from voting, Ali directly bolstered various civil rights demonstrations through appearances and words of support. Ali reached out to the movement as it reached out to him, thus bridging a gap that even Malcolm did not.

Leading the way in civil rights

Also noteworthy about Ali’s place in the civil rights era is that he was among the black freedom struggle’s vanguard. Ali incorporated strategies, tactics and worldviews into his operations that would later be adopted by much wider constituencies.

We were down there in these small, hot, dusty towns in an atmosphere thick with fear, trying to organise folk whose grandparents were slaves . And here was this beautifully arrogant young man who made us proud to be us and proud to fight for our rights.

Lawrence Guyot, a Mississippi civil rights organiser

His criticism of the Vietnam War and his initial resistance to the draft in 1966 took place about a month after the release of the SNCC’s antiwar manifesto, which was a first of its kind for the movement. Thus, Ali’s public stance against the war took place a full year before Martin Luther King Jr’s.

Before most black power organisations were beginning to incorporate economic platforms into their everyday agendas, Ali had formed a promotional corporation called Main Bout Inc, which would earn the majority of revenues from his title defences and, for the first time, allow African Americans to enjoy the lion’s share of profits from the world’s heavyweight championship, then the most lucrative prize in sports.

Crucial to Ali’s connection to civil rights workers was their shared sense of urgency. Activists who were putting everything on the line, including their lives, could relate to Ali, who risked just about everything he had when he refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War. As Mississippi organiser Lawrence Guyot put it: “We were down there in these small, hot, dusty towns in an atmosphere thick with fear, trying to organise folk whose grandparents were slaves … And here was this beautifully arrogant young man who made us proud to be us and proud to fight for our rights.”

Yes, Ali had his occasional black critics, among them the pioneering baseball player Jackie Robinson, but the overwhelming political sentiment among African Americans was that Ali was to be admired and defended. Thus, when people talk about the transformation of Ali’s image in the US, they mean his image among white people. Since the civil rights era of the 1960s, Ali’s reputation among African Americans has been just fine.

This rehabilitation of Ali is similar to the case of King, who in the years before his death in 1968 was unfavourably viewed by two-thirds of white Americans. Only in the 1980s, after his murder and a long fight led by his widow and her political allies, was King honoured with a national holiday in the US.

Often, the African American community is decades ahead of whites in its political outlook, even when such viewpoints are reviled by a majority that will one day adopt them. Ali is perhaps the clearest example of this long-standing American phenomenon.


Bigger than Boxing: Muhammad Ali and the Politics of Sport

The descriptor "icon" is vastly overused in these celebrity-fixated times, but it could have been invented for Muhammad Ali, who has died aged 74.

Thirty-five years after he threw his last punch in the ring, Ali is still front of mind in any discussion of the most-important sportsman ever.

He does not occupy this status because he is widely regarded as the best boxer there has ever been, who narcissistically called himself "The Greatest" and then forced a reluctant boxing world to agree. Ali was much bigger than boxing. He came, from the late 1960s onwards, to symbolise resistance to racism, militarism and inequality.

He embodied the intimate relationship between sport and politics that so troubles those, like nationalistic politicians, who deny its existence while ruthlessly exploiting it.

So how did Ali so consistently receive the kind of acclaim heaped on him by human rights activist and sports scholar Richard Lapchick, who describes Ali as "not a one-in-a million figure, but a once-in-a-lifetime person"?

Ali was a superlative boxer, but it was his great physical beauty and quick wit that made a major impression on those who knew little of boxing or were repelled by its brutality. Under his birth name, Cassius Clay, he forced himself into public consciousness by theatrically talking up his "prettiness," athletic brilliance and verbal facility.

From early in his career he self-consciously played the role of anti-hero with a racial twist. Knowing the white-dominated boxing establishment and fan base were always searching, especially in the prestigious heavyweight division, for a "great white hope" to put African-American champions in their place, Ali goaded them to find him another fighter to beat.

Decades before sportspeople used social media to communicate directly with the world and polish their image, Ali bent the media of the day to his will through outrageous publicity stunts, quirky poems and memorable catchphrases. Another white-dominated institution, the mainstream media, had to deal with an unprecedented, freewheeling assault on its familiar control routines by a black athlete who refused to be deferent and grateful.

This boxing-related pantomime was entertaining. But it was when the brand new world heavyweight champion rejected his "slave name" in 1964, became Muhammad Ali and declared his allegiance to the black separatist Nation of Islam that he became a major political presence in popular culture. His subsequent refusal - on religious and ethical grounds - to be conscripted to the United States armed forces and to fight in the Vietnam War turned him into both a figure of hate and a symbol of hope in a bitterly divided America. The world beyond boxing and America now had even more reason to pay close attention to Muhammad Ali.

Once more, Ali was ahead of the game. Anticipating the deep political divisions over the two Gulf Wars and their disastrous outcomes, here was a vibrant celebrity around whom dissenters could rally. Banned from boxing for three years because of his political stance, Ali acquired the status of a martyr to his convictions. He stood conspicuous among fellow sport stars who kept their heads down on matters of politics - whatever their private views. In retrospect, it is remarkable that he was not assassinated like the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.

When he returned to the ring, Ali became the focus of spectacular media-sport events like "The Rumble in the Jungle" and "The Thrilla in Manila." These boxing matches helped write the rule book of twenty-first century "sportainment."

Ali's boxing career petered out, yet he remained an instantly recognisable global celebrity. But by 1984 the savage toll that boxing took on his body, especially his brain, became evident. It is believed to have exacerbated the Parkinson's disease that progressively debilitated him. Some of the most touching and heart-breaking moments in sport came when his shaking body performed ceremonial duties at the 1996 Atlanta and 2012 London Olympics. When Ali spoke in public, his rapid-fire repartee was reduced to a low, slow whisper.

Despite his failing health, Ali relentlessly pursued his humanitarian activities. He supported charities and foundations such as Athletes for Hope, UNICEF and his own Muhammad Ali Center.

Ali was no saint. His cruel mocking of rival Joe Frazier, which he later regretted, saw him treat a fellow African American as a "dumb," "ugly," racially complicit Uncle Tom in a manner that resonated with some of the worst racist stereotypes. His complicated history of intimate relationships with women and his many offspring is of soap-opera proportions. But, in touching and enhancing the lives of so many people across the globe, here was a man much more sinned against than sinning.

Ali's passing comes at a time of increasing concern about sport-induced traumatic brain injury. The near-fatal outcome of a recent bout in the UK between Nick Blackwell and Chris Eubank, Jr. has once again put boxing in an unfavourable light.

Ali paid a ferocious price for his fame. Most leading medical associations would ban the sport that brought him to prominence. Yet, paradoxically, it is boxing that we have to thank for somehow - out of the violence and pain of its self-proclaimed "sweet science" - delivering to the world Muhammad Ali, "The People's Champion."

David Rowe is Professor of Cultural Research in the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University. This article originally appeared inThe Conversation.


Muhammad Ali Helped Make Black Power into a Global Political Brand

Muhammad Ali broke the mold introducing a new brand of masculinity, more humorous and more vulnerable than anything the world had seen before.

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

Muhammad Ali did not simply choose to be a cultural icon. He was also chosen.

Elevated by unsurpassed boxing skills and athletic prowess to become heavyweight champion of the world, Ali transcended sports through radical political activism that has, with the passage of time, been largely smoothed of its rough edges. He broke the mold introducing a new brand of masculinity, more humorous and more vulnerable than anything the world had seen before.

Political friendships with Malcolm X and membership in the Nation of Islam announced the newly crowned boxing champ as a provocateur, one whose Cheshire cat smirk hid rivers of simmering anger, pain and barely contained rage.

For a time boxing offered an outlet to the rage Ali felt about the unceasing racial humiliations of Jim Crow and the violence meted out against civil rights demonstrators across the country.

But by 1967 Ali had seen enough. The most visible Nation of Islam member in the aftermath of Malcolm X’s 1965 assassination, Ali’s resistance to the draft and friendship with civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael made him perhaps the most visible Black Power activist of his generation.

In doing so, Ali bridged the worlds between sports, popular culture, politics and activism in unimaginably profound ways. While contemporaries such as Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown and Boston Celtics star Bill Russell were outspoken civil rights activists, none matched Ali’s youth, charisma and global appeal.

Accounts of Ali’s political courage during the 1960s tend to play up his anti-war exploits at the expense of his Black Power activism. In truth, the Black Power organization offered the earliest and most sustained resistance against the Vietnam War.

Black Power activists made anti-war protests a core element of their political program, with a diverse range of groups including the Black Panthers staunchly opposing America’s involvement in Vietnam and efforts by the U.S. military to ratchet up the number of African Americans fighting on the front lines.

Ali’s now legendary statement that “no Viet Cong ever called me a nigger” took place against a historical and political landscape that framed American foreign policy in Southeast Asia as a part of imperial wars of aggression against nonwhite peoples of the world.

The sound bite remains a revolutionary act of political defiance precisely because Ali distilled lessons taught by Black Power revolutionaries with an economy of language that was the Nation of Islam’s and Malcolm X’s credo — make it plain.

Throughout the late 1960s Ali became a cultural touchstone for black America. He dazzled militant students with lectures on black history, his own political travails, and the need for principled resistance. An entire generation of black athletes, most notably Olympic sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar worshipped Ali as the pinnacle of athletic achievement.

As time passed, Ali helped make Black Power into a global political brand.

His love for Africa, rage against political inequality and thirst for social justice made him a human rights ambassador. Ali’s public persona, while lacking the sharp edges of others, outraged America’s politicians and pundits, who branded him a traitor. For many whites, Ali’s political alliance with black radicals made him a frightening role model for restless youths with a penchant for mayhem that could be seen in urban riots cascading across the country.

Ali’s reclamation of his boxing title in 1974 coincided with a transformed American landscape. The man hadn’t changed, but the times had, recognizing his political defiance to participate in a now unpopular war as the principled choice of a true maverick.

By the 1990s America embraced the once dangerous and reviled anti-war protester as a national treasure, one whose gait and sharp tongue had been considerably slowed by Parkinson’s disease.

Lost in neoliberalism’s warm embrace of Ali’s image via global marketing and branding deals is how this universally recognized icon for human rights found his political métier in the maelstrom of the Black Power era.

Just as contemporary Black Lives Matter activists have identified the criminal justice system as a gateway to racial oppression, Ali and his Black Power generation marked the Vietnam War as a multifaceted nightmare that linked race, war and poverty in ways that impacted not just America, but the world.

Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and professor of history at The University of Texas at Austin.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Contra Costa Times and Austin American Statesman.


How Muhammad Ali Hooked Sportswriters and Changed Coverage of Athletes

On Feb. 25, 1964, Cassius Marcellus Clay broke free from the crowd that swarmed his ring corner and howled to those working on press row. Clay had just defeated Sonny Liston for boxing’s world heavyweight championship, a result few of the newspapermen had predicted. Sports columnists Red Smith of the New York Herald Tribune and Dick Young of the New York Daily News both witnessed Clay climb “like a squirrel onto the red velvet ropes,” in Smith’s words. And they both heard Clay shout, �t your words. Eat your words.” “Nobody ever had a better right,” Smith wrote of the boxer’s proclamation. Cassius had made Liston look like a bull moose plodding through a swamp.” Young added: “This was Cassius Clay tasting the delicious verbal pastry of victory which he had just cooked up for himself."

The next morning, Clay declared his affiliation with the Nation of Islam and in doing so immediately became a politically polarizing figure in the United States. From that point forward, the way that Smith, Young and many of their colleagues covered Clay drastically shifted.

“The press conference was one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen,” recalled Robert Lipsyte, a longtime columnist at The New York Times. “Then, after Liston, the press had no choice. We were hooked into the story and had to follow it to the end.”

With the sports press glued to Ali’s every move inside and outside the ring, Smith and Young’s columns about the boxer largely reflect an era that challenged Americans’ views of their lives and society.

The sports section was traditionally seen as the toy department of the newsroom, but coverage of the outspoken Ali often touched on subjects beyond boxing, offering a perspective on the state of race, religion and the Vietnam War in America.

Smith and Young both attended many of the same fights and operated in the same New York market as each other. They were arguably the most famous sports columnists in the country covering the world’s most famous athlete. Their styles, however, were markedly different. A number of Smith’s contemporaries regard him as one of the �st literary sportswriters ever.” His graceful prose helped him win the 1976 Pulitzer Prize in general commentary, a rarity still to this day among sportswriters. Well-known magazine and newspaper reporter Gay Talese applied to the New York Herald Tribune when he graduated from college simply because Smith was working there and he believed Red Smith wrote some of the best sentences of anybody in New York. “He was like the DiMaggio of writers,” said Bob Ryan, a longtime beat writer and columnist at the Boston Globe. “You were hesitant to even approach him, just because of his legendary stature.”

At the same time, between 1960-80, Young might have been equally well-known, if not impactful, in the sportswriting profession. He was a dogged, acerbic columnist and made entering the locker room and seeking out athletes and coaches a requirement of the job. In a 1985 Sport magazine profile, Ross Wetzsteon characterized Young’s writing style:  𠇍ick Young is not a writer Hallmark would hire.”


Muhammad Ali rewrote the rule book for athletes as celebrities and activists

David Rowe does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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The descriptor “icon” is vastly overused in these celebrity-fixated times, but it could have been invented for Muhammad Ali, who has died aged 74. Thirty-five years after he threw his last punch in the ring, Ali is still front of mind in any discussion of the most-important sportsman ever.

He does not occupy this status because he is widely regarded as the best boxer there has ever been, who narcissistically called himself “The Greatest”, and then forced a reluctant boxing world to agree. Ali was much bigger than boxing. He came, from the late 1960s onwards, to symbolise resistance to racism, militarism and inequality.

He embodied the intimate relationship between sport and politics that so troubles those, like nationalistic politicians, who deny its existence while ruthlessly exploiting it.

So how did Ali so consistently receive the kind of acclaim heaped on him by human rights activist and sports scholar Richard E. Lapchick, who describes Ali as “not a one-in-a million figure, but a once-in-a-lifetime person”?

Ali was a superlative boxer, but it was his great physical beauty and quick wit that made a major impression on those who knew little of boxing or were repelled by its brutality. Under his birth name, Cassius Clay, he forced himself into public consciousness by theatrically talking up his “prettiness”, athletic brilliance and verbal facility.

From early in his career he self-consciously played the role of anti-hero with a racial twist. Knowing the white-dominated boxing establishment and fan base were always searching, especially in the prestigious heavyweight division, for a “great white hope” to put African-American champions in their place, Ali goaded them to find him another fighter to beat.

Decades before sportspeople used social media to communicate directly with the world and polish their image, Ali bent the media of the day to his will through outrageous publicity stunts, quirky poems and memorable catchphrases. Another white-dominated institution, the mainstream media, had to deal with an unprecedented, freewheeling assault on its familiar control routines by a black athlete who refused to be deferent and grateful.

This boxing-related pantomime was entertaining. But it was when the brand new world heavyweight champion rejected his “slave name” in 1964, became Muhammad Ali and declared his allegiance to the black separatist Nation of Islam that he became a major political presence in popular culture.

His subsequent refusal – on religious and ethical grounds – to be conscripted to the US armed forces and to fight in the Vietnam War turned him into both a figure of hate and a symbol of hope in a bitterly divided America. The world beyond boxing and America now had even more reason to pay close attention to Muhammad Ali.

Ali explains his refusal to serve in the US armed forces.

Once more, Ali was ahead of the game. Anticipating the deep political divisions over the two Gulf Wars and their disastrous outcomes, here was a vibrant celebrity around whom dissenters could rally.

Banned from boxing for three years because of his political stance, Ali acquired the status of a martyr to his convictions. He stood conspicuous among fellow sport stars who kept their heads down on matters of politics – whatever their private views.

In retrospect, it is remarkable that he was not assassinated like the Kennedys, Martin Luther King Jr, and Malcolm X.

When he returned to the ring, Ali became the focus of spectacular media-sport events like “The Rumble in the Jungle” and “The Thrilla in Manila”. These boxing matches helped write the rule book of 21st-century “sportainment”.

Ali’s boxing career petered out, yet he remained an instantly recognisable global celebrity. But by 1984 the savage toll that boxing took on his body, especially his brain, became evident. It is believed to have exacerbated the Parkinson’s disease that progressively debilitated him.

Some of the most touching and heart-breaking moments in sport came when his shaking body performed ceremonial duties at the 1996 Atlanta and 2012 London Olympics. When Ali spoke in public, his rapid-fire repartee was reduced to a low, slow whisper.

Despite his failing health, Ali relentlessly pursued his humanistic activities. He supported charities and foundations such as Athletes for Hope, UNICEF, and his own Muhammad Ali Center.

Ali was no saint. His cruel mocking of rival Joe Frazier, which he later regretted, saw him treat a fellow African American as a “dumb”, “ugly”, racially complicit Uncle Tom in a manner that resonated with some of the worst racist stereotypes. His complicated history of intimate relationships with women and his many offspring is of soap-opera proportions.

But, in touching and enhancing the lives of so many people across the globe, here was a man much more sinned against than sinning.

Ali’s passing comes at a time of increasing concern about sport-induced traumatic brain injury. The near-fatal outcome of a recent bout in the UK between Nick Blackwell and Chris Eubank Jr has once again put boxing in an unfavourable spotlight.

Ali paid a ferocious price for his fame. Most leading medical associations would ban the sport that brought him to prominence.

Yet, paradoxically, it is boxing that we have to thank for somehow – out of the violence and pain of its self-proclaimed “sweet science” – delivering to the world Muhammad Ali, The People’s Champion.


Muhammad Ali merged politics, activism and sports

NEW YORK - During the Beatles’ first visit to the United States in 1964, clever publicity agents arranged a meeting with Cassius Clay, then training for the bout that would make him heavyweight champion. The result was a memorable photo of a whooping Clay standing astride four “knockout victims.”

Two emerging cultural forces were beginning their path to global fame.

But as popular as the Beatles became, it was Muhammad Ali - who forsook the name Cassius Clay not long after that memorable photo shoot - who went on to become the most recognized person in the world. That picture was among the first to show him growing into that persona alongside the major cultural, political and entertainment figures of the era.

For a generation that came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, Ali was far more than a boxer. With a personality that could deftly dance and connect politics and entertainment, activism and athletics, his identity blended boundaries. He was an entertainer, a man at the center of swirling political and cultural change, a hero - and a villain - to many for his brash self-assuredness.

“Part of Muhammad’s greatness was his ability to be different things to different people,” retired basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote on Facebook Saturday.

“To sports fans, he was an unparalleled champion of the world, faster and smarter than any heavyweight before. To athletes, he was a model of physical perfection and shrewd business acumen. To the anti-establishment youth of the 1960s, he was a defiant voice against the Vietnam War and the draft. To the Muslim community, he was a pious pioneer testing America’s purported religious tolerance. To the African-American community, he was a black man who faced overwhelming bigotry the way he faced every opponent in the ring: fearlessly.”

The stoic generation that had fought World War II returned home to raise children who became defined by rebelliousness, impatience and an unwillingness to accept things the way they were. Few people embodied that spirit quite like Ali.

To his job, he brought a joy and brutal efficiency. Ali didn’t just beat opponents he predicted which round he’d deliver the whuppin.’ He spouted poetry while mugging for the camera.

Ali talked trash before the phrase was even invented. “This might shock and amaze ya, but I’m going to destroy Joe Frazier,” he said. Much of it was good-natured, although his battles with Frazier later became ugly and personal.

Outside the ring, the court fight over Ali’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War cost him three years at the peak of his career, but earned him respect among the growing number of people turning against the war. His conversion to Islam, with his abandonment of the birth name Cassius Clay, tested the deepness of Americans’ support for religious freedom, five decades before a presidential candidate talked openly about banning Muslims from coming to the United States.

It all made Ali the subject of countless arguments in playgrounds, bars, living rooms and offices. Everyone took sides when Ali returned from his suspension for refusing to join the military to fight Frazier. Whether or not you rooted for Ali often had little to do with boxing.

In a civil rights era when many Americans still denied the very humanity of black men, Ali became one of the most recognizable people on Earth.

“One of the reasons the civil rights movement went forward was that black people were able to overcome their fear,” HBO host Bryant Gumbel told Ali biographer Thomas Hauser. “And I honestly believe that, for many black Americans, that came from watching Muhammad Ali. He simply refused to be afraid. And being that way, he gave other people courage.”

Ali’s transcendent force - his comic bravado, physical beauty and insistence on being the master of his own story - made him the athlete most favored by singers, intellectuals, filmmakers and other artists and entertainers. He socialized with Sam Cooke, Norman Mailer and George Plimpton. Ali’s verbal sparring with sportscaster Howard Cosell helped make the latter’s career. When Ali traveled to Zaire in 1974 for his “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman, he was joined by James Brown, B.B. King, Miriam Makeba and other top musicians.

Ali inspired songs from around the world. John Lennon borrowed Ali’s “I’m the Greatest” catchphrase for a song that he gave to Ringo Starr. The 1977 biopic “The Greatest” was soon forgotten, but not the theme song later immortalized by Whitney Houston, “The Greatest Love of All.” Rappers Jay Z, Kanye West, Nas, Common and Will Smith referenced Ali in their lyrics.

Parkinson’s disease quieted the man himself in his later years. The reception given to a halting Ali as he lit the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996 made it clear he had made the transition from a polarizing to beloved figure.


Watch the video: Muhammad Ali interview on not joining the army (January 2022).