A couple preliminary notes about Muhammad Ali’s legacy before I get to my topic:
1. It seems indisputable that almost anyone you might care to name on the list of the most important athletes in history is bound to be nonwhite. A white athlete, devoid of larger symbolism, has very little opportunity to influence anything outside the athletic arena; Babe Ruth had a tremendous impact on the game of baseball, and even on sporting culture generally, but I’m hard-pressed to think of a way he changed the world in the manner of a Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, or Muhammad Ali. The only exception I can think of is Billie Jean King, but her impact seems a bit more complicated to me: while she surely made a difference in the public perception of women athletes and women in general, we’ve made little progress on the cause she was most directly fighting for—women’s sports having an equal seat at the table with men’s sports—and her accomplishment is soured somewhat by the revelation that Bobby Riggs may have thrown the match.
2. With Ali’s death, we seem to have another instance of the phenomenon I noticed back in this post: people angrily responding to a regressive opinion that is not actually being expressed, at least not prominently. Specifically, many responses to Ali’s death express disgust that people would try to sanitize Ali’s life, but I’m not clear where all this sanitizing is happening: apart from some anodyne tweets, I haven’t seen a single response that hasn’t focused prominently on his outspoken and brash public persona, his refusal to be inducted into the army, and so on. Take this NPR commentary by Kevin Blackistone, who laments that the toothless version of Ali”is all but being cemented in the days since his death last Friday” but only cites one example: Bob Costas saying in 1996 that Ali “lost” his 1960 Olympic gold medal, rather than (as Ali has said) throwing it into the Ohio River out of bitterness with American racism. The problem with this example is 1) it’s from 1996, 2) Ali’s own biographer has endorsed the “lost medal” theory, making Costas’s description not exactly beyond the pale.
I guess the idea is that people like David Cameron and Donald Trump, who would have had nothing but loathing (fully requited) for Ali during his heyday, are disrespecting him by claiming admiration for him. But I find that critique kind of petty: surely, on the occasion of someone’s death, we don’t always want or expect people to respond by reopening old disagreements or maintaining stony silence. If people imply with their tributes to Ali that he was some kind of national healing figure, the Joe DiMaggio of the boxing ring, that’s worth exploding, but I think that’s an offense that’s longed for more than it’s been committed.
Now, my actual point. When Muhammad Ali’s death was announced, I saw a number of people on social media refer to him as “the most important athlete in history.” (I won’t bother putting up links or screenshots, since I’m not trying to disprove anybody.) Not having given it a lot of thought, I was surprised to see that sentiment; I certainly thought of Ali as a very important athlete, but I would have thought Jackie Robinson would be the consensus pick for most important. (Yes, even about this sports fans will argue rankings.)
As I discussed this with folks, though, I started to think about why Robinson had been the first athlete to come to my mind, and what it means to compare him and Ali. I came to realize that what makes the comparison interesting, and unresolvable, is that Ali and Robinson actually represent inverse causes, or perhaps I had better say complementary paths towards liberation. Robinson was fighting for the right for athletes of any race to compete on equal terms. The boxing equivalent of Robinson isn’t Ali, it’s Jack Johnson (who integrated the World Heavyweight Championship), or maybe Joe Louis—boxers who made it possible, at least in theory, for blacks to stand in the same ring with whites, on equal footing. At least in theory.
Robinson’s campaign necessarily entailed a minimizing of racial differences and grievances. I’m not talking about any kind of appeasement or self-betrayal, just about simple integration: the iconic image (possibly apocryphal) of baseball integration is Robinson’s Southern-born teammate Pee Wee Reese defying racist fans by putting his arm around Robinson on the field, an image which has power because the players are not only equal, but united together. Robinson was meant to prove—and succeeded at proving—that at least in sports, racial integration would prevail over overt racial conflict, a goal famously expressed by general manager Branch Rickey’s remark to him upon signing: “I’m looking for a ballplayer with the guts not to fight back.”
For Ali, on the other hand, fighting back was the entire point. He wasn’t fighting for a right to racial equality, but for a right to racial difference: the right to be a vocal black man, to refuse to make white America comfortable. This is what gave us his refusal to be inducted into the army. “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong” is a radical statement because it disavows any patriotic common cause with the white mainstream, for the good reason that in multi-racial America this common cause only runs one way: “No Vietcong ever called me nigger.” There’s a straight line between Ali’s refusal to be drafted in 1967, and Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics: both declined to subordinate their racial identity to their national one. Smith explained his protest this way: “If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro.” Like Ali, he understood that the melting pot is not unconditional or reciprocal, but a warrant of good behavior, an instrument of leverage by which the mainstream keeps the minority in line.
Ali’s insistence on the right to stand apart led also to stances we in the mainstream find awkward today, such as his opposition to interracial marriage. Just as he did when he refused induction, he was emphasizing the separateness of the black experience in America. There are plenty of ways to oppose the draft without opposing interracial relationships, but Ali didn’t choose any of them.
This distinction between Robinson and Ali matters today, because while the mainstream has more or less reconciled itself to Robinson’s goals, Ali’s—the recent glowing tributes notwithstanding—is still controversial. In sports as in society generally, the momentum is more and more in favor of integration, as we can see when it comes to gays: the public reactions to Jason Collins and Michael Sam coming out of the closet were overwhelmingly positive, and that is a direct benefit of Robinson’s legacy. But sports culture still has trouble with black athletes who insist on the right to be separate, like Marshawn Lynch, or to draw attention to themselves, like Yasiel Puig, or to be politically vocal, like LeBron James on police brutality issues. No one is trying to unring the bell of integration, but plenty of people will say tacitly, and a few explicitly, that black and Latin American players as a group need to put their heads down and assimilate or else leave American sports. (The issue is complicated by the way Ali’s conscious iconoclasm is reduced to mere selfishness in the hands of some. “I’m black,” Barry Bonds said when asked why he didn’t do more for the trainer who went to jail rather than reveal what he knew about Bonds’s steroid regimen, “and I’m keeping my money.”)
After Ali died, I rewatched the 2002 Michael Mann biopic Ali and reread the parts of The Autobiography of Malcolm X that deal with Malcolm’s relationship with Ali. Malcolm directly connects Ali’s triumph, both in the ring and more broadly, to his refusal to weaken himself in order to integrate into white society, and mocks Ali’s defeated opponents Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson for trying to do that. But rereading the book, I was reminded that Malcolm talks about Jackie Robinson too, who broke the color barrier when Malcolm X was still Malcolm Little and in prison. And the Autobiography doesn’t repudiate the thrill of that integrationist moment; instead, it savors it. “I’ll never forget the prison sensation created that day in April, 1947, when Jackie Robinson was brought up to play with the Brooklyn Dodgers,” Malcolm X writes. “Jackie Robinson had, then, his most fanatic fan in me. When he played, my ear was glued to the radio, and no game ended without my refiguring his average up to his last turn at bat.”