Muhammad Ali stood for something to everyone. His athletic skill set was not only effective, but had a style and panache to itself. A study of his politics would be as polarizing as Donald Trump’s, yet his fervent belief system was admirable. Here is a man who truly believed in the idea of making America Great again. There will never be another Ali because no one really wants to be Ali. They’d rather listen to their inner circle who tell them to keep their mouth shut and let the money roll in. Higher purpose? For most of today’s greatest athletes, there isn’t one.
Today millions mourn the loss of an iconic figure. What he meant to you might be different then what he meant to me, but he meant something powerful. That’s the legacy of Ali. From strictly the perspective of the modern sports reporter, he represents something else, a bygone era where self editing wasn’t scrutinized.
Ali spoke his truth in such a loquacious style that he was the perfect media storm. Here’s a Black man in the civil rights era standing up to country he loves while proudly wearing the red, white and blue. Consider for a moment the repetitive complaints of recent African American stars, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. They don’t mention political leanings despite the public assurances that their beliefs could carry the weight of change. LeBron James has used social media to speak out against inequity, in particular to recent occurrences of young black men being killed in the name of self defense. But if you ask him to get on the pulpit and explain his positioning, his PR staff will put up yellow tape that reads do not cross.
Ali wasn’t scared then because maybe he was just different and maybe the era in which he thrived athletically wasn’t this politically correct world where professionals demand editing every thought as to avoid any potential media storm.
I live in a world where words are parsed even in the most benign of circumstances. Take LeBron again as an example. In the middle of this current NBA season, he unfollowed the Cleveland Cavaliers official team Twitter feed. This led to a week of speculation about his playing future, his unspoken feelings about the organization that he came back to play for, and on and on. James never actually clarified this “passive aggressive” move. I’d have loved to have seen what Ali would have done with social media. He seemed to have understood the power of the medium before anyone knew it could exist.
Ali helped shape the career of one of the icons of my industry, Howard Cosell. Neither shy of speaking their personal truths, they seemed to realize that each could help one another ascend further into fame. Cosell had precious air time. Ali possessed the ability to turn that airtime into can’t miss moments. Consider now which interview of any athlete would have that same effect? The answer is none. Part of that is because of options and outlets. Directing a large group of viewers to one destination these days is practically impossible. And there also is the defense mechanism of the greatest athletes of this time to keep their thoughts to themselves. Tom Brady practically won’t discuss anything of substance even if it involves the New England Patriots.
Ali lived and thrived in a time where freedom of speech was a valued commodity. His country needed someone to be an instrument of change and he took on that role. Today’s athletes want to protect their jobs, their “brands”, and in doing so have turned freedom of speech into the opposite of it’s true intention, the freedom to not say anything that might come back to haunt them. Speaking your mind in sports is taboo.
Ali made mistakes in the media that these days wouldn’t be tolerated. His personal attacks on longtime rival Joe Frazier bordered on a level of racism. He’d call Frazier “a gorilla.” Frazier, an amazing fighter himself was not as gifted in the ability to be memorable in interviews which only perpetuated the stereotype that Ali wanted to promote; he was smart, Joe was dumb. And there is an unspoken deep seeded tinge of racism associated with that.
The media would have called out Ali differently now. But not unlike Trump, his ability to speak, his affect on ratings and his command of attention allowed for him to be part of a different set of standards. Trump recently referred to someone at one of his rally’s as “his African American.” Imagine what the reaction would be if Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton did that.
As a reporter and interviewer, I’ve been frustrated about how programmed our athletes have become. Agents, PR representatives, managers all impress upon their clients the importance of saying little or in some cases nothing at all. They teach techniques of how to answer questions without really giving an answer or taking a position. Peyton Manning was amazing at these techniques while still maintaining an air of likability. Bill Belichick doesn’t even pretend that he wants you to like him but if you listen to how handles the media, you’ll realize he and Manning aren’t all that different from one another.
I find truthfulness to be attractive. This is America. I don’t have to agree with what you have to say but I’d rather hear your position on our world then to pretend you don’t think about it or that we aren’t worthy of knowing what your positions are. True icons stand up and speak their mind. Muhammad Ali defined icon. He was and still is the Greatest. And now, I’m not sure there is a close second.
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