Monday, January 18, 2016

Muhammad Ali: Protecting our heroes

Remember when Michael Jordan won every game of the 90s? Or when Babe Ruth hit .400 while pitching a perfect game in all of his starts that one season? Of course not, but that is usually the extent of sports revisionist history—a fond remembrance of a few foregone performances.  Such longing doesn’t usually hurt anything other than your sports knowledge credibility. But when people begin to conflate a caricaturization of an athlete with the activism of a man; that is when real life danger abounds.

Muhammad Ali's birthday was yesterday and the outpouring of love was heart-warming, and also a bit confounding. Muhammad Ali recently graced the cover of Sports Illustrated; he has done so over 30 times.  It has been over 40 years since he won the “Thrilla In Manilla”, an iconic fight that capped a hellacious trilogy of battles against Joe Frazier.  SI is commemorated Ali’s legacy with naming an award after him.  The award was dubbed, “the Sports Illustrated Muhammad Ali Legacy Award”, given to “celebrate individuals whose dedication to the ideals of sportsmanship has spanned decades and whose career in athletics has directly or indirectly impacted the world.”

If you want to make a 70 year old black man laugh, tell him that Muhammad Ali just got a sportsmanship award named in his honor from a major American publication. The loquacious boxer that broke the stereotype of “the strong, silent type” and told the world after he had held the heavyweight boxing title for nearly 5 minutes that he was the greatest the sport had ever seen, is now the prototype for how athletes should conduct themselves.

But this piece isn’t about sportsmanship hypocrisy.  It isn’t about that concept being branded as a docile and, in fact, joyous loser who displays little-to-no emotion regardless of what athletic feats have been accomplished. No, this piece is about something far more insidious—the proliferation of revisionist history.  Muhammad Ali was one of the most dangerous thinkers of his time. He openly rebelled against the government; he was put in jail for refusing to be inducted into the armed forces (famously quipping, “I ain’t got no quarrel with those VietCong”). As a result, he lost his title—at the time when the Heavyweight Title in boxing was the greatest sports prize a man could hold. He openly and controversially discussed the mistreatment of blacks by white America at a time when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Huey Newton et al. were being assassinated because of their views on the subject.  His commentary on Joe Frazier as an “Uncle Tom” while they were engaged in battle was painful and important commentary at a time when sides were being drawn in the black community on how to proceed with revolution. Muhammad Ali was a rebel.

The Sports illustrated piece makes reference to Thomas Hauser (who wrote a 1991 biography on the former champion) saying, “There has been a concerted effort by many people in recent years to grind down the rough edges of Ali’s legacy, but there is also an aura of love and pure goodwill about Ali” but an attempt to do so defangs the sharpness of the words of a man that was never at a loss for them. Sure, Ali (obviously stricken with the Parkinson ’s disease that has simultaneously ravaged his body and made him a more palatable figure) lit the Olympic Torch in 1996 in Atlanta; but he also, allegedly, threw his 1960 gold medal into the Ohio River because of the mistreatment he received upon his return after representing his country.

Let's defend and honor our heroes by really getting to know their message (AP Photo)
This rebranding has happened before.  Dr. King has become a cuddly bedtime story of the revolutionary that he was.  A man who was once so dangerous as to require monitoring by the Federal Bureau of investigation, has become a symbol for keeping peace at the expense of all else and respectability politics above dignity; not the man that wrote (in his “letter from a Birmingham Jail): “…I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate.” And despite the attempt by would be ventriloquists to turn King into a puppet, never forget how divisive the great orator was about race and American capitalism.  Indeed, dig at all into some of the personal proclivities of the minister Dr. King and the search will reveal the flaws that rest inside many men.

Telling the truth doesn’t besmirch the legacy of a man; if anything it inspires those that are left to dwell in the world that those men helped to create.  Our heroes were men with missteps and controversies, in addition to their greatness and courage.  To tell any other story is a disservice to them and those that come behind them.  If it is love that one wants to inspire (as is prevalent throughout the Sports Illustrated piece), tell the truth of the man so that reactionary byproduct is as pure as the work that may be inspired from it.

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