By: Amiri Tulloch
Earlier today, the world was saddened by the death of iconic boxer Muhammad Ali. With a 56-5 record, a gold medal in the 1960 Olympics, and three world heavyweight championships won during his career, Ali held firm to his self-imposed nickname of “The Greatest” through his flair and potency in the ring. As we continue to reflect on his life and legacy over the coming days, though, it is crucial to remember that Ali has never been just a fighter. His courageousness outside of boxing exemplifies that he’s more than that, especially when looking in the context of the modern athlete.
Ali, as a refresher, was outspoken against fighting in the Vietnam War. After qualifying for the draft in 1966, Ali refused to serve the military, with his Muslim faith and black nationality as motivators for his anti-war perspective.
“My conscience won’t let me go shoot some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America,” Ali said in 1967. “And shoot them for what? They never called me “n-gger.” They never lynched me. They never put no dogs on me. They never robbed me of my nationality. How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”
Sure enough, on April 28, 1967, Ali was arrested after not accepting induction into America’s Armed Forces on charges of draft evasion. His boxing license and championship title both were revoked across the country. It was hard to fathom that at age 25, during the peak years of the world champion’s life, Ali was essentially being stripped of his boxing dignity.
For four years, Ali was embroiled in a grueling match against the law. Beginning in June of 1967, Ali was found guilty in trial by a jury. His bought finally came to an end in June of 1971 when the Supreme Court voted 8-0 in favor of overturning the earlier Ali ruling. In 1974, he won back his world championship title and proved that his championship talent hadn’t receded over the years off.
Although he could not fight any matches from 1967 to 1971, Ali remained free during those four years of legal deliberation and used the time to strike home his ideas and beliefs. Ali spoke at universities across the nation, defining the idea that he was much more than just a boxer. His words not only inspired students but also presented a new way for athletes in America to act. Because he stood up for his anti-war beliefs, Ali lost his sport during his prime years but stabilized his personal sanctity, gained more respect from the black and anti-war communities, and showed athletes around the globe that they could represent their political and social beliefs publicly.
Ali’s resistance to the war came during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, which made his vocalness and sincerity on his stance even more necessary. His message rubbed off in more ways than one, too. In 1968, just one year after Ali’s arrest, John Carlos and Tommie Smith bought the black power salute to the Olympics — a move that resulted in the two being expelled from the Games.
In another example of how the rest of the Civil Rights Movement acknowledged Ali, in April of 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous speech against the Vietnam War. Throughout his life, Dr. King did not shy away from discussing Ali’s relevance.
“Like Muhammad Ali puts it,” Dr. King stated to the press at one point, “we are all — black and brown and poor — victims of the same system of oppression.”
The courageousness shown by Ali was also noticed by young athletes of the time period. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a friend of Ali’s and a champion NBA player, talked about Ali’s influence in a 1989 interview.
“Well, I think Ali's impact on young people was very formidable. I remember when I was in high school, the teachers at my high school didn't like him,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “The fact that he was proud to be a Black man, and that he had so much talent and could enjoy it in a way that…didn't have the dignity that they assumed that it should have. I think that was something that really made certain people love him and made other people think that he was, he was dangerous. But, for those very reasons, that's why I enjoyed him.”
Tangible evidence of Ali’s impact on Abdul-Jabbar could be seen in 2012, when the basketball player accepted a position as a cultural ambassador for the United States, and can also regularly be seen in his television, radio, and writing contributions to topics ranging from religion to race.
Such celebration of the vocalness of Muhammad Ali and others, however, comes at a time when public black nationalism is a less publicly pressing trait expressed by athletes today. Examples exist of athletes protesting and standing up for beliefs, but Ali’s sense of urgency during the ‘60s is missing in the modern athlete; a realization that makes Ali’s fight even more valuable. No athlete in today’s sports world has used their platform like Ali did, even though a case can be made that modern superstars have bigger outreach and more influence than Ali did in the ‘60s.
With that being said, all is not gloomy in the present day interactions between society, politics, and sports. NBA superstar LeBron James has been one of the more outspoken athletes of the era, an opinion bolstered by his stances on police brutality and black rights. After the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012, James responded by posting a picture of him and his Heat teammates standing with hoods up. In 2014, James and other players wore an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt during pregame warmups — an action that was reciprocated by other players and teams in the league including the Kobe Bryant-led Lakers. Then, also in 2014, the LA Clippers conducted warmups with undershirts that did not display their logo as a protest to the racist words of then-owner Donald Sterling.
The NBA isn’t the only league that has seen silent forms of protest over the years. In late 2014, five players from the NFL’s St. Louis Rams entered the field on game day with hands up in “don’t shoot” poses, a response to the death of Mike Brown in nearby Ferguson, Missouri.
Those are just a few examples of the ways in which athletes are using their influence to share their beliefs on social and political topics. Although each of those aforementioned forms of protest were silent, it is a positive sign that players today still have a drive to be expressive through political and social issues. Although those expressions may not equal the scale and tenacity of Ali’s anti-war candidness, it is at least important to recognize that such efforts of modern athletes would not exist without Ali’s trailblazing in the ’60s.
When we remember the life of Muhammad Ali, it is paramount that we do not separate the athlete from the activist and inspirer. Ali’s abilities in the ring were unique and unparalleled, and his actions outside of his sport complement those successes adequately.