When you’re 17, you don’t pay much attention to anything beyond school, money, and the fairer sex. And when the Olympics cruised through Atlanta the summer of my 17th year, nothing else was on the mind, especially during the Opening Ceremonies.
So when Muhammad Ali was tasked with lighting the Olympic Torch, I thought nothing of it. Because that’s not what 17 years old are worried about.
Fast forward four Olympiads and this time I am watching. And somewhere between David Beckham and the actual lighting of the torch, Ali makes another appearance. This time at the behest of the Brits – for his humanitarian work.
And as I saw Ali the question began to brew – at what point did Ali become the face of America? And what exactly did he do to earn that status? And how did I miss the vote?
And am I okay with that?
And what happens to the past?
Some look at Ali and see a hero, a man who fought the regime and stood up for himself and his race. A man who not only talked the talk, but walked the walk. A man who built himself to the highest of highs and captured the hearts of Americans everywhere, black and white.
And some look at Ali and see the humanitarian work he has performed since finishing his boxing career. And others see a tragic figure, slowed now by his mind and Parkinson’s.
And I see those things, for they can’t be missed or ignored. But neither can the remainder of Ali’s past.
You can’t ignore the association with Elijah Muhammad and his radical sect of Islam called the Nation of Islam. If today’s most prominent athlete were to align himself with a radical form of Islam, it would not be lauded, it would be loathed. He would not be celebrated, he would be criticized. And while Ali was criticized for his faith in the 1960’s, it falls far short of the anger he’d face today.
Ali, to his credit, stood up for the black community, especially those in the south. But in actuality, integration was not was he was after. The Nation of Islam taught segregationism, that the races are different, and should not be mixed, just under a different order.
You can’t ignore the defiance of dodging the draft, regardless of your feelings for the war. When your country asks you to go, you go. You may not like it. You may not want to go, but you were asked. And when you’re asked, you respond yes – not no.
And in addition to dodging the draft, his public stance swayed the public opinion of the war, to the tune of those serving being treated with hatred and contempt. It was no longer a civil discourse, but a physical one.
You can’t ignore the infidelity. Ali is currently married to his fourth wife and has nine children: seven to his four wives and two from extra-marital relationships. His third, and potentially fourth wife, were the result of affairs, as were two of his children. And while this has no bearing on his ability to do a job, it doesn’t speak to the image America should be promoting.
You can’t ignore his treatment of his opponents. To be honest, trash talking is a major component of today’s sporting events. You see it at every level and there is little that can, or will, be done to curb it. But during Ali’s time, very little talking was done between teams or opponents.
But Ali’s talking would not be considered trash, but abuse. He vilified his opponents and made statements they were never able to overcome. He characterized Ernie Terrell and Jim Frazier as Uncle Tom’s, monikers they could never chase. In addition to the Uncle Tom comments, he also berated Frazier with racial and physical insults, including rounds of “Ugly” jokes and calling him a gorilla and white man’s champion. He did the same to George Foreman when he implemented the “Rope-a-Dope” as part of the Rumble in the Jungle.
See 2:25 mark:
And most people consider his brash behavior and personality to be what makes him so great, and he did back it up, but the way he carried himself should not be the example we set for ourselves or the world. And just because Parkinson’s has reduced him to a caricature of himself does not make him a hero or deity – and he needs to quit being treated as such.
He should be remembered for his boxing prowess in the ring and controversy out of it. For together they paint the full picture of “The Greatest” boxer of all time. But to forget the controversy and paint him as the symbol of American sports and culture is to gloss over and stuff aside a large part of his past – and the people he hurt along the way.
I, along with many others, am willing to forgive Ali the sins of his past, but I’m not willing to forget them.
And I’m not willing to have him serve as my ambassador to the rest of the world. To me, he is only the greatest boxer, not the greatest American.