The world’s farewell to Muhammad Ali is filled with well-deserved honor and respect. It’s hard to believe that decades ago when he took his historic humanitarian position against the Vietnam War he was one of the most hated men on Planet Earth. Now he is recognized as the G.O.A.T. To borrow the words of Fidel Castro; “history has absolved him.”
As I think over the standing ovation he has received in death versus the thunderstorm of hate he had to endure as a young Activist/Athlete I can’t help but wonder how much of it is sincere. As beloved as Ali has become, the truth is, the sports world never wants to see his outspoken brand of Black activist/athlete again. Then I began asking close friends and family to help me identify one Black Activist/Athlete in today’s modern era. A few names were thrown out there here and there, but in the end, we could not come up with one. Not one!!! Is Ali the last of a dying breed of athletes willing to take a stand for freedom, justice and equality? Where are today’s Black activist athletes?
Muhammad Ali was truly special. He was gifted athletically and through his study of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s teachings, he became a mental giant. What many miss is the depth of his courage and conviction. Black athletes are conditioned to be good ambassadors for the sport, but groomed to never weigh in on political or social issues. Those that tried were “tarred and feathered” then stripped of everything. I call it the “Ball and Chain.” If you want to make millions playing with this ball you have to accept the chains that come along with it.
Ali was warned by sports councils, executives, managers and other athletes that if he persisted in his expression of his views toward White America and her war, he would lose it all. In June 1967 a cadre of top Black athletes including Jim Brown, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul Jabbar met in Cleveland for what is now called the Muhammad Ali Summit. The objective was to convince Ali to rethink his position on the draft refusal and try to change his mind. Instead of them changing his mind, he changed theirs. They ended up supporting Ali. This was a pivotal moment for all Black athletes who historically had been considered “well-paid pieces of meat.” Ali stood on his convictions even in the face of being convicted. He lost everything in the process; yet eventually won his case against the U.S. government. This is why he is lauded as “the greatest.” It has very little to do with what he did in the boxing ring. He is called the greatest because he stood for what he believed and was ready to lose everything, including his life, in the process.
The late rapper Notorious B.I.G. once rapped about liking his women “brainless.” I’m sure he was joking. However, it’s clear that’s how team owners, sports management and others like their athletes. To them it’s no joke. A vetting process has been put in place for Black athletes that weed out the outspoken, Muhammad Ali-minded men before they get started. You cannot be truly activist-minded and exist in today’s professional world of sports. If you are conscious, you are not permitted to be vocal about it. The talented Black athlete is groomed from middle school to keep his mouth shut when it comes to racism, police brutality and politics and focus on making touchdowns, three-pointers and record-breaking relay performances. By the time they make it to the pros they are already conditioned to sacrifice their bodies without ever speaking their minds when it comes to the real world around them. Ali set the bar extremely high. Are the athletes of today even bothering to reach for it?
Some of today’s athletes have millions of dollars more than Ali had in his heyday as a heavyweight champion. Some of them have great business acumen and great minds surrounding them. They have millions of followers on social media so they are not as beholden to mainstream media as Black athletes in the sixties. Some are so well-off that if they never played another game of ball they and their families would be fine. But what today’s athlete doesn’t possess is “defiant conviction” in the face of the suffering of humanity. I can’t help but think of how Dwight Howard dared to tweet #FreePalestine and was forced to apologize and delete it from his social media page. How would Muhammad Ali have responded if he were Howard? Again, the goal is to never allow another voice as strong, influential and change-oriented as Muhammad Ali’s into professional sports ever again. He is the last of a dying breed. Or is he?
Black athletes must take a page from the life of Muhammad Ali. He was not content with money, fame, prestige and celebrity. He knew that there was more to life than just screaming fans and big paychecks. Many of you want to speak out about social issues, but you allow fear to strangle you and choke the life out of you. You permit your handlers keep you as far away from “the struggle” of your people as possible to keep you in the dark even though you possess a light from God within. Sadly, the NFL and the NBA does not just require of you your body, it requires of you your very soul. Muhammad Ali did not subscribe to fear. Neither should you. May the death of Muhammad Ali spark life into the athletes of today, causing them to be a part of the movement toward equality.
There must be a series of private summits like that of the Cleveland Summit. Imagine if Lebron James, Cam Newton, Floyd Mayweather, Stephen Curry, Marshawn Lynch (an outspoken brother) and other influential athletes came together with grassroots community activists and devised a plan to use their influence for long-term social change. What could be accomplished if Black athletes got rid of their fear and stood against police brutality the next time a Black woman was pulverized by a law enforcement officer? Many of them probably wanted to say what was in their hearts when Sandra Bland was killed, but felt they couldn’t. That, my people, is sad. For God has not given us the spirit of fear. So if the spirit of fear exists in our strong gladiators, who put it there?
In my many conversations about this topic, most people concluded that there will never be an outspoken athlete like Muhammad Ali again. I tend to disagree. One thing that can be said about Black people is that no matter what we suffer, we never stop producing greatness. If we can produce one outspoken warrior, we can produce another. He may not float like a butterfly or sting like a bee, but he’ll stand up for what’s right when the time comes. Long live the champ. May he inspire a new crop of athletes who answer to God; not their owners.