The other day I was watching NFL highlights on ESPN where they were showcasing the latest feats of the incomparable LaDainian Tomlinson. Apart from his great athletic talents, something else strikes you about him. After scoring a touchdown he does a strange thing; he simply hands the ball to the nearest official. No dances or similarly planned gyrations; no jersey-grabbing and no "look at me" demonstrations.
It is indeed a welcome respite from the barrage of hedonistic narcissism and charges of racism a la Barry Bonds that nightly pervade my TV set under the guise of sports coverage. Anyone familiar with American sports has come to expect such behavior whether they are watching the NBA or Little League baseball. But where did it all begin?
A good place to look is ESPN's Ali Rap -- a TV special where various celebrities mouth some of Muhammad Ali's most notable quotes, with sometimes disastrous results -- which seems to posit the theory that Ali somehow inspired that art form. The show seeks to buttress the reputation of a man Spike Lee has called "Our shining black prince; to black people, he was like God."
Many like to hold Ali up as a beacon of courage for "speaking truth to power," especially on issues of race and war. But he was much more than that. He was the first to realize that, much like today's entertainers, racism sells and, when combined with cartoon-like displays of narcissism, it sells like hotcakes.
Prior to Ali, sports figures and other entertainment personalities were held in high esteem and, in return, were expected to respect those who made them rich and famous; the ticket-buying public. The heavyweight championship in particular was still considered the most prestigious title in sports before Ali ascended to its heights.
Although some boxers verbally sparred with each other to promote their bouts, they generally comported themselves in the ring with a gentlemanly brand of sportsmanship and a mutual respect born of the nature of the sport itself. And at a time when racial segregation was still legal, most of America cheered all of its heavyweight champs, white or black.
My late father, who was prone to cheering for Italian Americans, thought Joe Louis was our greatest champ, both in and out of the ring. For my dad and others of the World War II era, Louis represented all of America in his epic rematch with Max Schmeling in 1938. That he was later called a shuffling Uncle Tom by Ali earned the ire of such men much more than any of his other remarks.
And what remarks they were! Though he started out as something of a self-promoting clown; mugging for the cameras with bulging eyes and exaggerated facial expressions, he soon graduated to poster boy for those radical groups who were unsatisfied with the peaceful civil rights gains being wrought by heroes like Martin Luther King. Add to this his opposition to the Vietnam War and it's easy to see why he was the first real icon of the burgeoning liberal media.
And like the god that Mr. Lee still worships, he announced in no uncertain terms the parameters for that worship: "I am America. I am the past you won't recognize. But get used to me: black, confident, cocky. My name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My goal, my own. Get used to me."
Thrilled by his boxing skills, many fight fans were at first willing to overlook his ties with the radical Nation of Islam until they suspected that ulterior motives were behind them. When Uncle Sam called, Ali made clear in a message which sounds chillingly familiar today, for whom only he was ready to go to war:
War is against the teachings of the Holy Qur'an. I'm not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or The Messenger. We don't take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers.
His message was manna from heaven to a generation of young writers who themselves opposed being sent to Vietnam. Chief among Ali's media promoters was Howard Cosell and the apparent contradiction of a Jew fronting for a man whose religious mentors were nothing if not blatant anti-Semites was ignored in the face of such a marketing coup. But, was Ali a racist?
He and his followers have tried to paint the picture that everyone who rooted against him was a racist, his fame and fortune in "white" America notwithstanding. Conversely, every opponent who did not call for the overthrow of the "establishment" was an Uncle Tom, deserving of whatever abuse Ali saw fit to dole out, racial or otherwise.
Sometimes he tinged it with humor, as in this quip about George Foreman: "It's a divine fight. This Foreman -- he represents Christianity, America, the flag. I can't let him win. He represents pork chops." He often sneeringly referred to Joe Frazier as "The White Man's Champion" and worse, a gorilla. And he was deadly serious in an interview in 1970:
I was determined to be one nigger that the white man didn't get. Go on and join something. If it isn't the Muslims, at least join the Black Panthers. Join something bad....I hate to see black women and men, once they get prestige and greatness, where they can go into ghettos and pick up little black babies and make them feel good, to go leave and marry somebody else and put the money in that race....Now the white man's got the heavyweight champion -- Joe Frazier's got a white girlfriend.
He expanded his views on interracial relationships in an interview with Playboy: "A black man should be killed if he's messing with a white woman." When asked if a black woman dated whites: "Then she dies. Kill her, too." Yet, this is the same Ali, who joked upon his return to America after beating Foreman in Zaire, "Thank God my granddaddy got on that boat."
So was he a racist, a shining black Muslim prince fighting for peace and equal rights, or simply a comic self-promoter who exploited the woes of the time for his own advancement? That he was probably all of the above is lost on too many of a new generation of American athletes who are still bombarded with his message: that to act in a respectful, humble way, is to sell out.