An Ali Legacy That Might Have Been
In February 1994, on the first-year anniversary of the death of Arthur Ashe, I wrote a column for USA TODAY lamenting the lack of anyone in the community of sports stepping up to fill the void that the activist and humanitarian left in terms of consistently speaking out on the issues of the day.
There had been a contemporary of Ashe who had set the standard off the charts, but his voice was being silenced in the most cruel way.
If Parkinson’s-like symptoms had not sidelined him from active participation, just imagine how much more good Muhammad Ali might have done for society at large? Imagine how Ali might have pushed and prodded more athletes to take stands that were outside their comfort zones.
No one was asking for our sports heroes to rise to the level of Ali, although Ashe came admirably close.
But a little more activism wouldn’t have hurt, would it, Michael Jordan?
Instead, over these many years, we have watched the physical decline of one of the most fascinating celebrities of our time and the spiritual decline of athletes as role models.
Ali was so interesting on so many levels. He dealt with racism growing up in segregated Louisville. He won gold at the 1960 Olympics, then took on Sonny Liston when the experts said he hadn’t paid his dues and would get smoked.
He converted to Islam and dealt with the hatred that engendered. It didn’t stop him from speaking out, and he backed up his denouncement of the Vietnam War by refusing to take part when the government said he must. He was exonerated by no less than the U.S. Supreme Court, but not even nine justices could give him back the years lost in the prime of his athletic career.
Ali overcame that, too, rising to reclaim his heavyweight title. Twice.
But he was not a saint. He stayed in the game too long, becoming one of those who couldn’t leave at the top, and he suffered the indignity of going out a broken athlete. He paid for it with his once boisterous soul reduced to a whisper.
He lampooned Joe Frazier as the “gorilla in Manila.” And while he later made attempts to reconcile, Frazier went to his grave still feeling the sting of Ali’s intent.
Ali married four times and had his indiscretions. Early on he had some old-fashioned ideas about the role of women in society too. And yet, he would become known as the father of a top-level athlete in her own right, in Laila.
He was always more than just an athlete; he was a man with visions for all of society. He could go anywhere in the world and not just draw a crowd but masses of people, throngs, clamoring to be in the presence of “The Greatest.”
He helped secure the release of 15 U.S. hostages in Iraq during the first Gulf War. He made goodwill missions to Afghanistan and North Korea. He delivered medical supplies to an embargoed Cuba. He met with Nelson Mandela after his release from prison in South Africa.
He was “a guy who basically had to give up a belt … because of what he believed in and ended up in jail because of his beliefs,” LeBron James said of Ali to ESPN.
“He’s part of the reason why African-Americans today can do what we do in the sports world. We’re free. … And Muhammad Ali was definitely the pioneer for that.”
It was a hard act to follow, true. But I have to believe Ali would have inspired more athletes to join him in taking on just a corner of society if his physical attributes had stayed intact.
That act really would have been the greatest of all time.