Muhammad Ali and the Decline of Sportsmanship
Many terms come to mind when we think of Muhammad Ali. Deity. The Greatest. Muslim. Icon.
But how about this phrase: Muhammad Ali is ground zero for the loss of dignity and sportsmanship in the world of sports. Obviously, given his universal appeal among both blacks and whites, it is on dicey footing that I put forth this claim. Especially considering his current debilitating disease that will lead to his death. What in boxing used to result in the medical diagnosis of “punch drunk”, surfaces today with the much shinier moniker of Parkinson’s disease.
My opinion is not rooted in insensitivity or racism or prudishness. I’ve talked my share of smack on the basketball court over the years. I just got to thinking one day about when the current culture of demeaning your opponent while at the same time glorifying your own accomplishment, began.
It started with Ali.
His appeal broke racial barriers at a time when things were much less evolved in America. The late 1960s and then the 1970s was about revolt for the black man. Possibly Ali saw this as his opportunity for raging against the machine, and chose this path of ego-driven behavior as his right of passage. I’d like to think his best effort at standing up for himself came when he refused to go into the Army due to his Muslim religious convictions. “I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong”, was his famous quote, and simplified what many Americans, black or white, Muslim or Christian, felt at the time.
When, exactly, Ali chose to make self-absorbed bluster his defining characteristic is unclear. Were the media as saturated in the culture back then as it is now, everything would of course be documented. But I grew up with this man, and watched and read and listened whenever possible. His behavior was unmistakable.
There was no subtlety in his calling his biggest rival in the ring, Joe Frazier a “monkey”, and “Uncle Tom”, vicious taunts that Smokin’ Joe took to his grave when he died recently. Frazier remained bitter to the end about feeling betrayed by another black man (Ali) for the sole purposes of promoting himself.
I’ve no beef with Ali’s boxing prowess and how he is perceived as the greatest fighter of all time. I agree whole heartedly. But with each increasing level of fame came an obligation that he simply chose to ignore. Role model.
By diminishing his opponents, both before fights with his pithy poetic rhymes predicting knock outs, and during the bout itself as he taunted the other fighter, he was laying the groundwork for a new, undignified approach to competing in sports at the highest level.
One thing that flummoxes me is how he was able to establish this deleterious form of interaction in an otherwise racist society. Why was he given the freedom to do and say unsavory things while most other black men were still drinking from a different fountain?
Howard Cosell who, being Jewish (a member of another discriminated group) and white, aligned himself with Ali, and both men were then able to overcome many of the stereotypes that weighed down lesser individuals in their respective groups. They played off each other in interviews to the point where even the thickest skulls realized the tongue-in-cheek, wink wink aspect to their relationship. Their union brought each other respectability.
Both men held a similar goal: self promotion. Both men attained those goals, through no small help of each other.
The black lower class, home to many of today’s professional athletes, has been affected most perniciously by Ali’s behavior. The cringe-inducing behavior we see today, on the basketball floor, in the end zone, after hitting a homerun; all the preening and arms raised to the sky as if welcoming not only God’s approval, but his worship, all can be traced to the greatest boxer of all time choosing brash, undignified self-promotion over the humble acceptance of his accomplishment.
Though I believe this began in the black community due to Ali’s overwhelming influence of black people at a time when blacks desperately needed a representative to snub his nose at The Man, it certainly now permeates all walks of life; culturally, racially and economically. It is no longer a black thing. It’s an American thing, which I guess speaks to the power of Ali’s influence.
We barely bat an eye anymore when confronted with this behavior. Many argue this entire subject falls under first amendment rights. Please. Read the first amendment. That’s some great, tight writing. Then (if you’re white) go outside and yell the “N” word. See how much “freedom” you are afforded. My argument here, of course, is not to condone hate speech like that horrible word. It is to open the eyes of anyone who interprets the language of the first amendment literally. There is little gray area in our right to free speech. There is nothing BUT gray area in the world of human communication. Somewhere in the middle lies sanity.
So, my final volley across the net lands directly into Ali’s lap. His Parkinson’s disease. Those who followed his career will no doubt remember cringing at his last 6 or 7 fights. Way past his prime, out of shape, and more than a step slow, he continued to climb in the ring to take a beating. Why?
To keep his name in the spotlight.
All distasteful and superficial justifications for having his brain scrambled and his central nervous system destroyed. If given the chance to change his past decisions, I think he would leap at the chance to forego those last few fights, where he was beaten into submission by the likes of Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick. Again, he was no dummy. He was shrewd, sagacious and ultimately, a Champion. The allure of fame crowded his better judgment. He’s hardly the first to fall prey to that.
But he’d trade a lot of the hardware, adoration and paychecks for the ability to hold a fork right now.
It is a sad tale, the last third of his life. I only wish he wasn’t leaving a legacy of behavior that poisons sport on a daily basis.