Muhammad Ali was the second athlete to enter white America’s living rooms and make everyone uncomfortable. Jackie Robinson was the first, and he’s the greatest story in sports history. There’s no close second.
But in a more modern era, on more wide-ranging platforms, Ali did to white America what no black athlete had done since Robinson or has done in the decades since. Ali challenged it. He angered it.
Ali – who died Friday at 74 after being hospitalized in the Phoenix area with respiratory problems – made normal white fathers in normal white families react over normal white conversations in the late 1960s and early 1970s in ways normal white children had never seen.
How do I know? Because I lived it.
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“That bum is ruining the country!” my even-tempered father once said with thunder in his voice in a manner I’d never seen. And, as I talked with friends, fathers were doing that up and down our normal Midwestern block.
This is what’s lost in the rush to honor the heavyweight champion boxer as someone everyone forever loved and appreciated. That sanitizes Ali’s public personality. It changes who he was at his greatest.
Ali broke the envelope of accepted norms in a manner white America couldn’t accept from a black man: He joined the Nation of Islam while training in Miami in the 1960s; he changed his name from Cassius Clay to Cassius X, then to Muhammad Ali; upon being reclassified for the Vietnam draft he loudly refused to serve.
“I ain’t got nothing against them Vietcong,” he said.
As a family with friends who fought in Vietnam, believing America was the best country of all, my parents rejected him. Ali stood on the wrong side of everything important – and he was black, which added another thick layer of difference.
“Cassius Clay,” my father would call him in those years, never referring to him by his changed name.
We always say we want athletes to be more than sports stars. We wanted Michael Jordan to stand for something more than selling shoes. We wanted Tiger Woods to say something – anything – about women’s membership at male country clubs.
This is why we miss Ali. He stood for something.
He also paid dearly for it in the prime of his career, having more than three years of boxing taken away, becoming a center of controversy for his beliefs.
How many of us would have that strength?
It’s much easier to remember Ali as he became in recent decades. But honor his life by appreciating how his words regularly flew against the societal grain.
This wasn’t just decades ago. Take an interview in 2011. No one paid attention to it, because no one wanted anything to disturb the legend of Ali. A decade after the September 11 attacks, Ali was asked if Al Qaeda and the Taliban were evil.
Terrorism was wrong, he said initially. He then told interviewer David Frost he wanted to “dodge questions like that,” because there were people around the world “who love me” and he had “businesses all over.”
Somewhere in there was the Ali who refused to give the easy answer that made it easy on everyone. Of course, by then, he had become a public figure whose fame everyone wanted to brush up against.
He lit the Olympic torch. He met presidents and kings. He graced magazine covers. He even, in an uncomfortable night for everyone, was propped up in a golf cart due to Parkinson’s disease at the opening of Marlins Park in 2012.
Such royal treatment told of how people came to appreciate what he stood for. But I’d like to think it was told more clearly – without toasts or headlines – in white America’s living rooms in the 1980s.
At least that’s when it was in mine, years after Vietnam, years after Ali’s name evoked anger, long years after the social struggles he fought were even relevant. I brought up his name once to my father.
“Ali was right,” he said. “I was wrong. We were all wrong. He was right on Vietnam, right on not trusting the government at the time.”
This, a white kid who grew up in those times, was Ali’s greatest feat. He changed how white America thought.
“I wish we’d have listened to him,” my dad said.