“Athletes today are scared to make Muhammad Ali statements”
-Nas from “My Generation”
Muhammad Ali’s life was prophetic, no matter what belief you hold. Ali is also one of the only athletes to use his superstardom to speak for those who could not be heard. The same could be said for very few modern athletes.
After his defeat of Sonny Liston in February of 1964, Muhammad Ali was quick to denounce his birth name of “Cassius Clay”. He had announced his conversion to Islam and was poised to become an inspirational figure for African-Americans.
Ali’s refusal to participate in the Vietnam war was a sacrifice beyond words. Perhaps he faced probable death and decided to resist. However, as an athlete, it is an immense sacrifice to miss four years of participation in one’s profession. Ali risked his legacy, his wealth, his titles, and his freedom. He stood up for his people, who were being sent to the front lines to sacrifice their lives name of a country who still viewed them as disposable.
Compare Ali to the modern athlete. Athletes who occasionally choose to appear ignorant about all manner of topics, like Jonathan Bernier thinking Nelson Mandela was an athlete. Athletes whose management instruct them to stick to a script during interviews, or where they choose to stick to a script of their own.
Many modern athletes have never aspired to make a difference, and I am not suggesting that they all should. For many, their limited influence is through branding, social media, and advertising.
Like many of us, they live in a fantasy world where a retweet perpetuates real social change, or that sharing an article on Facebook makes them an activist. In actuality, retweets perpetuate stagnation and sharing an article simply regurgitates the ideas of others.
An example of this self-branding focused activism is when Lebron James wore an “I can’t breathe” shirt in response to the death of Eric Garner. While one may naturally admire that a superstar athlete like James supports something that many people stand behind, one may also wonder whether wearing a T-shirt is the most that he could be doing.
Athletes like Lebron, with fan followings in the multi-millions, could be using their influence to bring real change to the world rather than promote their new, self-branded pair of $300 shoes. The wealth and security of professional sport has disconnected many athletes from the realities that affect large groups of people, including many of the very fans that support them.
When asked to list their accomplishments, many modern athletes will rattle off every title they’ve won, their all-star record, or records that they have broken in their given sport. With especially ambitious examples, you may hear words like “model,” “actor,” or “fashion designer.” Muhammad Ali was a generational influence, who just happened to be the Heavyweight Champion of the World.