BY Art Thiel 01:54PM 06/04/2016

Ali’s sacrifice for principle was his finest win

Muhammad Ali was that rare successful athlete who was willing to sacrifice his pinnacle for principle. Doubtful we’ll ever that again.

Muhammad Ali:”What I suffered physically was worth what I’ve accomplished in life. A man who is not courageous enough to take risks will never accomplish anything in life.”

Whether sports or news, journalists are taught to be respectful but impervious to authority, celebrity and power. The job cannot be done while influenced by awe, fear or fandom. Any news consumer can spot the difference with one test: Are good questions being asked well?

The test is acute in sports because most every sports journalist grew up a sports fan.

Learning to lock the elbow and hold subjects and passions at a distance often is a hard thing. It’s more difficult now because the biggest employers of sports journalists are the sports leagues and conferences, shrewd exploiters of a crashing industry who can offer decent jobs in exchange for a willingness to look the other way during dispute, scandal and controversy.

I bring this up now because I remember how all of that professional impartiality and distance turned to dust one afternoon when Muhammad Ali walked into the sports department of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Ali was in town for a charity event after his 1981 retirement, but before Parkinson’s disease claimed so much of his vibrancy. He was staying at the Westin Hotel a few blocks from the P-I offices.

Colleague Kenny Richardson, a sportswriter with some boxing connections, said he was going to walk down to the Westin and say hi to the champ and invite him back to the office.

Right, Kenny. You go. Bring back Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis while you’re at it.

About 45 minutes later, in through the department door walked Richardson, silently, with the world’s most famous person trailing him. Just the two of them.

Incredulous, I started to rise from my chair. Ali saw me, put his finger to his lips, and I sat down. He stealthily slipped behind copy editor Paul Rossi, who had his back to the door. Ali made a kind of cricket noise with his fingers next to Rossi’s right ear.

Rossi brushed at his ear absent-mindedly, and kept working. Ali did it again. Same response. At the third instance, Rossi swung his arm up, started to turn in his chair and got out the word “What — ” before Ali stuck his unmistakable mug next to Rossi’s.

Rossi’s widening eyes seemed to fill his face. He blurted, “Champ!” so that everyone else in the room was at the same stunned attention.

The champ. The Greatest of All Time. The man who fought the most brutal heavyweights of his era, as well as the U.S. military-industrial complex in the courtrooms of the 1960s, was messing with Rossi.

As one of the most courageous cultural figures in history strode toward me with his hand out, my journalism training welled him up and I said, “Shit, man, um . . .”

As I stood, Ali saw I was taller than him. He grew wide-eyed and said, “You big,” and doubled his fists and began to throw shadow punches at me. So I hunkered down and threw hands too.

Then he was off to work the room, greeting and punching with everyone, smiling, saying little. Suddenly he and Kenny were out the door. Journalistic crustiness was nowhere to found.

I felt myself tearing up. I was star-struck. For the first time since I was a kid.

To this day, I don’t quite recall how that episode happened. I learned later that Ali often was a master of similar small moments of spontaneity with strangers.

But the emotion I felt from a brush with an unparalleled figure in human history was not just from the amusing moment, but from the sportswriter’s knowledge of what he lost, willingly, not what he won.

The admiration had less to do with his prodigious feats in boxing, although I often circled the dates of his fights on the calendar because it seemed everyone in my world, whether kids or adults, whether he was loved or hated, would be talking about what would happen that day.

My fascination and affection for Ali was for his unwavering will to sacrifice for principle. He spoke truth to power. He paid a dear cost, knowing well he would alienate many of those who could make him more wealthy and powerful.

Young sports fans may think that drafts are what sports leagues do to stock rosters. But the draft was what the U.S. government did to conscript young men for wars, be they just or unjust.

When in 1966 Ali loudly, publicly refused to be drafted to fight in Vietnam, he shook a nation already riven with civil-rights protests and anti-war demonstrations. In his hometown of Louisville, at a fair-housing rally, Ali articulated his view with astonishing but characteristic boldness (h/t The Nation):

Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end.

I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality . . .  If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.

He was convicted in 1967 of draft evasion, stripped of his title and banned from boxing. The appeal process kept him out of jail, and on March 11, 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court, by an 8-0 vote, overturned his conviction.

But he was denied his chosen living for 43 months at the prime of his career. Hindsight says that because of the neurological damage he sustained that compromised his final three decades before his death Friday night, perhaps the pause was a blessing.

That is nonsense, then and now. He was a conscientious objector because of his faith — an exemption by matter of statute, not opinion — and was wrongly convicted.  He never regained his physical eminence nor the lost income. Yet he fought for another 10 years, twice winning back the heavyweight title in legendary fights against George Foreman and Joe Frazier and not once wavering from his convictions.

In death, he is viewed in many ways by observers of his incandescent boxing career, his social and political activism and his slow, tragic decline. As for himself, not once did he deviate from principle, nor lament its consequences.

“What I suffered physically was worth what I’ve accomplished in life,” he said in 1984. “A man who is not courageous enough to take risks will never accomplish anything in life.”

It is difficult to imagine in today’s world a successful pro athlete sacrificing so much gain and profile to help achieve a social advance with so uncertain an outcome. Particularly since in the nearly 50 years following his Louisville speech, African-Americans still feel compelled to insist that black lives matter.

The worst outcome for Ali’s life is not his physical vulnerability. The worst outcome is yet to play out — will there be among the prominent those who understand the value of sacrifice for principle?

Doubtful.

But I’m eager to be surprised again by someone of conviction to walk through our doors.


YourThoughts

  • jafabian

    Few athletes transcend their sport. Ali is probably the first that comes to mind. Others are Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, Jim Brown, Wayne Gretzky, Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Michael Jordan among others. OJ Simpson and Tiger Woods could have been on that list if not for obvious circumstances. Ali is the one where world leaders lined up to meet him. And that was before the Internet and social media. The world was at attention during his boxing matches, well before pay-per-view came about. Not sure we’ll ever see an athlete and broadcaster relationship like the one he and Howard Cosell has ever again. There’s a lot of history attached to Ali like no other in sports. He truly was The Greatest. RIP.

    • art thiel

      Well said, J. The Ali-Cosell relationship was like nothing else in modern media, for reasons good and bad.

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  • just passing thru

    Art, Thanks for sharing (and lucky you for having) such a moment with Ali and seeing his personal side. Ali was a man of controversy in the world, and in our home. My father, who served 20 years in the military, did not like him at all. And Ali made many uncomfortable, because he challenged the status quo.

    Yet it was his commitment to his beliefs that shined so brightly, aided by his indomitable spirit and personality. And even after his boxing career was over, even when challenged and debilitated by disease and injury, he contributed. For those who doubt Ali’s greatness, look at the worldwide press today – he is mourned everywhere.

    • art thiel

      My father was similarly contemptuous. Disrupters are by definition threats to those enjoying the status quo. Ali scared the hell out of white people already scared of the civil rights movement and anti-war protests.Every parent I knew felt national chaos was imminent.

  • Xman

    A beautiful piece. Thank you, Art.

    • art thiel

      You’re welcome.

  • Jamo57

    Great piece Art. From the meditation on Ali to the reflection on the “news biz”.

    And here we are back to wondering if national chaos is imminent. :-/

    Another thought provoking piece……

    • art thiel

      Thanks, Jamo. Again, Ali was an inspiration.

  • seapilot69

    Great read you old wordsmith. I have an Ali story for you that happened to me when I was in the Army in 1973. I was flying home to Seattle on leave from Germany and had a stopover in the Philadelphia airport. Over the PA system an announcement came, “would Mr. Muhammad Ali please come to the United Airlines Customer Service counter”. Suddenly there was a rush of humanity heading that way, including me and there The Greatest stood surrounded by fans. No bodyguards, no hangers-on, just him. He stood there for over half an hour signing autographs, including mine, talking to everyone. It was amazing. I came to find out much later that he would do that often in airports, have himself paged knowing crowds would gather. RIP Champ.

    • art thiel

      It’s amazing how many people are writing media outlets about their Ali encounters. I’m beginning to believe he met everyone on earth at least once.

      No one else does this.

  • Trygvesture

    Nice, Art. What a story. Shadow boxed with Ali? The image is, well, compelling.

    That speech in Louisville shocked me. I heard what I’d never heard before– clearly stated, unequivocal. As a fifteen year old, I was confused. Strong language. Indicting a country — not just where the civil rights movement was burgeoning. Bombing Brown people? Do those in charge feel Brown people matter less? Never heard of such a thing, such a righteous indignation in the accusation.

    But — it was Ali. The Greatest. The one who backed up his talk with proof — always. The one who had courage and who was not ever swayed by his opposition. My suburban brain exploded. I was tripped up. Ultimately, I was changed.

    That year, I filed my tax return for my part-time grocery store income. I deducted the Defense Department percentage, much to the extreme consternation of my dad. But I did it anyway.

    Even from that physical and cultural distance, he wreaked havoc where it needed to be wreaked; he changed lives in places where I’m sure he never imagined his voice would be heard.

    He was a Hero.

    • art thiel

      Your bewildered youthful experience was widespread. Young people of all colors were shocked by him — some grateful, some scared. I’ve read this weekend where Bryant Gumbel and others identified Ali’s willingness to challenge authority and the status quo as the inspiration for African Americans to be unafraid.

      Only the passage of time reveals what incredible impact one man had on the lives of so many.

      As for you, I hope the statute of limitations has expired on your tax delinquency,

  • Dale Bouton

    I couldn’t have said it better, Art.

    I came up in the 60′s and 70′s, my formative years and I tried to explain to my kids (All in their 20′s) what Ali meant outside of the ring to his people and all people of this country and ultimately the world. But I quickly realized that unless you were there, living in that time of turbulence and potential it is difficult to fully grasp what that magnificent man stood up to and what he stood for. Pride, conviction, and audacity.

    He was indeed a product of his time and a voice that was so sorely needed. We will never, in my opinion see another of his kind.

    Thanks for the outstanding piece/tribute.

    • art thiel

      Thanks, Dale. Given his harsh words upon joining the Nation of Islam, an the brutal criticism that followed, it is astonishing how beloved he became.

  • Paul Sherman

    I think in our local lives, no one comes close to Ali. We have Griffey, who has so much power to do something other than give us joy whenever we see him, but an Ali? I watched a video with Ali (still Cassius Clayu) and Steve Allen. You should check it out. He has always been the court jester and the warrior champion. We have lost another hero. Glad you are here reporting on it.

    • art thiel

      No one comes close to Ali anywhere, because it is so rare to match supreme athletic talent with social consciousness AND showmanship.

  • DJ

    Art – Thanks for the great article. Your points are well made and appreciated.

    Ali was my first sports hero, as Cacious Clay. I once had to listen to one of his fights crouched with my ear next to the speaker of our TV that had no picture so as not to wake my younger siblings.

    I never met Ali, but had a buddy that once saw him running the downtown Seattle streets in the early morning – all by himself. What I would have give to see that and yell out “Hey Champ!!”

    I have always felt a connection with Ali, and respected what he stood for. Looking back it makes me wonder if he was somewhat responsible for some of my ideals. I’ve always stood on principle and that has cost me at times……if so, that’s kinda cool.

    Rest in peace, Champ!

    • art thiel

      His fearlessness empowered many. White or black, Ali inspired with his independence, but not as many who feared him for it.

  • Stephanie X

    I was 11 when Ali fought Liston in Miami, Olympic champion against an ex-con, before he had proclaimed his religion and name, but already alienating whites with his uppityness.

    Creatures of our parents, my white classmates wanted Liston to win. I wanted Cassius Clay, the underdog, to win. When he did win, when he did declare himself, I heard the hate rain down. And I wanted him to win even more. I learned most of what I needed to know about racism as I watched Ali take it on all comers – including the US government.

    There I was, a transgendered kid (in the closet, of course), different & confused and there was Ali different, but not confused, standing up for who he was and I knew he was standing up for me, too.

    So when I became a lawyer, public defense was the only law I would practice. When I finally came out of the closet 4 and a half years ago and started doing jury trials in high heels and a skirt, it was Ali’s courage that gave me the courage to be different and not confused. I can’t stop crying.

    • art thiel

      What a testimonial. I applaud your remarkable candor. I knew from your tweets that a bright light was on.

      Your point about Ali as beacon for the disenfranchised has really hit home over the weekend. Numerous African Americans have made the key point that Ali’s steadfastness and sacrifice under fire gave them the courage to be unafraid. Middle-class white hetero guys like me had all kinds of examples, from comic books to military officers to astronauts, of how navigate a world that was receptive to my profile.

      Lots of others had only Ali.

      No greater observation illuminates his power.

      Thank you for the window on your world.

  • Paul Sherman

    Check out this youtube link of a young Cassius Clay being interviewed by Steve Allen on the Tonight show with questions from the audience. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FZoo1jIn8W0

    • art thiel

      Wonderful. Thanks for passing it along.

  • MrPrimeMinister

    Would be interesting–today being D-Day and all- to put Ali and Ted Williams together for a conversation. There you have a guy who sacrificed the prime of his career to go fight the Germans.

    • art thiel

      Williams was at least in accord with the majority of Americans, who saw the Germans as a threat to every American and the world. Ali’s refusal to submit to the draft came before the anti-war movement gained momentum, meaning at that time he was loudly contrary to majority public sentiment. A much tougher position.

  • Justin Van Eaton

    Ali had already done, arguably, his greatest social work by the time I was old enough to even recognize him as an athlete. Yet I can say while I didn’t always agree with his principles, I absolutely appreciated his willingness to stand by them in the face of so much criticism. And his ability to shoulder so much amidst the socially charged climate of the time remains inspiring. Before I knew any other athlete’s name, whether local or national, I knew Ali.

    • art thiel

      Even Ali changed some of his views when he left the embrace of Malcolm X and became friends with MLK. And he also became a TV commercial pitchman. The narrative arc of his life is astounding.

  • Jeff Shope

    draft dodger