Muhammad Ali was equal parts great athlete, iconoclastic icon, swaggering pioneer of self-promotion, and defiant social activist. There will never be another Ali because he was sui generis, but also because most of today’s transcendent athletes are too busy protecting their bank statements to make a political statement.
The legend of The Greatest is so much more than mesmerizing rhymes and memorable moments in the ring against the likes of Smokin’ Joe Frazier and George Foreman.
What separates Ali is that while he threw punches for a living, he didn’t pull any. He was style with substance, taking political, social, and religious stances, no matter how unpopular they were with the sporting public.
Ali was an athlete with a voice and a social conscience who wasn’t afraid to use his celebrity to make a statement or take a stand. It’s the lesson that today’s athletes should take from the coverage of his death.
Ali died Friday. He was 74.
Ali didn’t just win fights. He fought for what he believed in, whether it was obviously just (black equality and pride) or vexingly complex (refusing induction into the military during the Vietnam War).
Ali, who announced his conversion to Islam the day after defeating Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title in 1964, cited religious reasons for declining induction as a conscientious objector.
There are still those who resent him for not serving. There are others who champion him for speaking out against an unpopular war and highlighting the hypocrisy of a country that subjected men like him to racial epithets and demeaning discrimination demanding those same men take up arms for said country.
As Ali said, the Viet Cong had never called him the n-word.
A son of the segregated South from Louisville, Ky., Ali took both a strident and subversive approach to campaigning for racial equality as a member of the Nation of Islam and a silver-tongued showman.
Regardless of whether Ali’s position on the war was admirable, his steadfast adherence to it was. He put his beliefs ahead of his boxing career.
Refusing the draft cost Ali, who was 25 in 1967, his heavyweight championship and more than three years of his prime, as he was banned from boxing after being convicted of draft evasion. (The conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1971.)
What preeminent athlete today on the level of Tom Brady or LeBron James would sacrifice three years of his or her career in the name of religious beliefs or a polarizing political stance?
Today’s marquee athletes are usually too busy using their fame to tweet trivialities or post Instagram selfies to take a stand on really important social issues. They carefully cultivate two-dimensional brand images of a three-dimensional person.
We know little about their political leanings, their core beliefs or their social convictions. That’s the way they want it.
That’s not to overlook the fabulous and important charity work done by scores of professional athletes. That’s important. But it’s different than trying to foster social change or speaking out against injustice.
The closest thing to Ali in my lifetime is Michael Jordan. MJ had an inimitable grace and ferocity to his basketball game. Like Ali, Jordan transcended his sport as a worldwide celebrity and pop-culture icon. As the Gatorade commercial said, we all wanted to “Be like Mike.”
It’s too bad that Jordan didn’t want to be like Muhammad.
Jordan never stood for anything other than the Nike swoosh.
A North Carolina native, he famously stayed out of the contentious 1990 Senate race between Republican Jesse Helms, a reputed racial antagonist, and his Democratic challenger, Harvey Gantt, the first African-American mayor of Charlotte.
As a radio commentator, Helms had railed against the civil rights movement. As a senator, he led the charge against making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a national holiday.
Jordan’s reasoning is summed up in an oft-cited and structurally debated quote that defines his corporate, apolitical existence: “Republicans buy shoes, too” or “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
Regardless of the exact syntax, the message is unmistakable — taking a political stance is bad for the business of selling Air Jordans.
If we want athletes to take stances on issues, we can’t demand they just take ones that are progressive and popular.
Ex-Bruins goalie Tim Thomas created a firestorm when he skipped a trip to the White House and posted his political leanings on Facebook in 2012.
The difference between Thomas and Ali was that when Thomas was approached to discuss or defend his beliefs, he demurred. Thomas wanted to use his fame to disseminate his message, but then dodged the responsibility that came with it.
James is often perceived as being corporate and artificial. But he took a stand over the death of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed African-American teenager who was shot to death in Florida in 2012, in part, because he looked “suspicious” in a hooded sweatshirt.
James organized a photo shoot with Miami Heat players in hooded sweatshirts with their heads bowed.
What Ali did outside of the ring resonated with James, who told ESPN.com that Ali’s activism made him the greatest of all time .
“The reason why he’s the GOAT is not because of what he did in the ring, which was unbelievable,” James said. “It’s what he did outside of the ring, what he believed in, what he stood for, along with Jim Brown and Oscar Robertson, Lew Alcindor — obviously, who became Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] — Bill Russell, Jackie Robinson. Those guys stood for something.”
Ali wasn’t perfect. His name-calling of Frazier and depiction of him as an “Uncle Tom” during their epic rivalry was cruel and counterproductive. It fed into hundreds of years of self-defeating division between blacks and undermined Ali’s equality aims.
In renouncing his birth name of Cassius Clay, Ali said it was a slave name; he was named for a prominent Kentucky abolitionist.
But Ali knew his abilities had created a platform, and he wanted to use it for more than just money, fame, and sexual conquests.
More of today’s athletes should follow Ali’s example.Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.