The past year has been a weird one for sports fans. With the declining ratings of Monday night football and the evolution of small ball in the NBA, there’s a lot changing. The biggest change fans will be facing however; will be the collision of the exciting melodrama of the escapist sports world and the politics of the real world. In light of a series of mass shootings and police brutality becoming a more discussed political issue, many athletes from Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James to the polarizing Colin Kapernick have been speaking out and protesting to make their thoughts on these issues heard. Many fans have questioned the efficacy of these protest and many are sick and tired of their athletes protesting and doing anything more than throwing balls at each other. This has not been the first demonstration of protest by a high profile athlete and it certainly wont be the last.
The greatest instance of an American athlete making waves by protesting is Cassius Clay: the late, the great, Muhammad Ali. It all happened so quickly, one day after a shocking upset in 7 rounds against the contending world heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, Clay announced to the world he was Muslim and not only that but a member of the Nation of Islam. Fans all over the U.S cringed as Clay changed his name to Cassius Ali and denounced “white devils” for constantly oppressing African Americans.
Days after, Ali was seen standing next to Malcom X, his new good friend and mentor, in front of the UN calling for African Americans to fight back. He changed his name a few more times to Cassius X and finally to Muhammad Ali. All of this would be completely overshadowed by his actions after the Vietnam War was in full swing.
“I have no quarrels with no Viet Congs.” Was the infamous quote after Ali refused to be drafted. The undisputed heavyweight champ was livid he was suddenly listed as 1-A (eligible) after failing the literacy portion of the draft exam twice. The demand for soldiers grew so the standards were lowered making Muhammad Ali, a newly single and now literate enough, a prime candidate. Ali had already made himself the villain in a lot of ways. His bravado was his calling card, talking smack in rhymes, pummeling and embarrassing his opponents, and his associations with Malcom X were putting him on thin ice. After Malcom X was assassinated and Elijah Muhammad (founder of the NOI) jailed, cities feared Black Muslim violence would pour into their cities with a rematch against Liston around the corner. When Lewiston, Maine accepted the task of hosting the rematch, five policemen accompanied Ali on his jog from his motel room to the converted banquet hall where he sparred. He laughed at the fear everyone had, saying, “Nobody wants to kill me,” he said. “If they shoot, the gun will explode in their hands, the bullets will turn, Allah will protect me.” Hourly reports of Muslims coming from New York to kill him brought 200 policemen to guard Ali at the fight. With his new frustration with the war and the US government came a bevy of harsh criticisms that bombarded the fighter with racial slurs. He was stripped of his title but continued to fight the system and prove he’s the best fighter in the world.
Unfortunately,disrespecting the opinions of our athlete’s have continued in recent years with Colin Kapernick having his jersey burned and used as a doormat after recent protests regarding the treatment of African Americans in our country. An argument has been made that if Kapernick was more successful, there may be more people listening to what he has to say. Kapernick, backup or not, has had his message on every new network for some period of time and has become one of the faces of the black lives matter movement with sales of his jersey skyrocketing in recent months. Even with his rising fame, the argument is that no change has been made but the same can be said for Muhammad Ali speaking against the war. After the emergence of Kapernick’s message, many other athletes have joined his peaceful protest approach but now athletes must tread a very thin line between sending their message and normalizing the protest to the point it loses meaning. As sports fans, we should embrace our athletes gaining more political independence and using the attention they worked hard for to share their thoughts on any issue. Just because these athletes are here for our entertainment does not make them beholden to us nor should it force these people, many of whom were able to escape their harsh communities, to bite their tongue on issues close to them.