Film footage of Muhammad Ali is used to sell everything from soft drinks to cars. The image we are spoon-fed is the improbably charismatic boxer, dancing in the ring and shouting “I am the greatest.”
The present Muhammad Ali is also a very public figure, despite his near total inability to move or speak. His voice has been silenced by both his years of boxing and Parkinson’s disease. This Ali has been embraced by the establishment as a walking saint.
In 1996, Ali was sent with his trembling hands to light the Olympic Torch in Atlanta. In 2002, he “agreed to star in a Hollywood-produced advertising campaign, designed to explain America and the war in Afghanistan to the Muslim world.”
Ali has been absorbed by the establishment as a legend — a harmless icon. There is barely a trace left of the controversial truth: There has never been an athlete more reviled by the mainstream press, more persecuted by the US government, or more defiantly beloved throughout the world than Muhammad Ali. There is now barely a mention of this Ali, who was the catalyst for bringing the issues of racism and war into professional sports.
The mere thought of athletes using their insanely exalted and hyper-commercialized platform to take stands against injustice is now almost unthinkable. Such actions would break the golden rule of big-time sports — “jocks” are not to be political, except when it comes to saluting the flag, supporting the troops, and selling war.
That is why, when Toni Smith, the basketball captain at little Division III Manhattanville College, turned her back on the flag in 2003, the attack was rabid. The same year, Wake Forest basketball All-American Josh Howard said about the US war on Iraq, “it’s all over oil…that’s how I feel.” Howard was not only derided publicly, but NBA draft reports stated, “Antiwar remarks reflect rumored erratic behavior.”
The hidden history of Muhammad Ali and the revolt of the black athlete in the 1960s is a living history. By reclaiming it from the powers that be, we can understand more than the struggles of the 1960s. We can see how struggle can shape every aspect of life under capitalism — even sports.
Fighting for Justice
No sport has chewed athletes up and spit them out — especially black athletes — quite like boxing. For the very few who “make it,” it is never the sport of choice. Boxing is for the poor, for people born at the absolute margins of society. Continue reading