Muhammad Ali stood for what he believed in, and he paid a steep price for the elementary act of standing. He lost his heavyweight title and perhaps his best years as a boxer. He lost his livelihood. He lost many of his fans.
The only thing most athletes stand for these days is the photo shoot tied to their shoe endorsements.
Very few of today’s stars would risk everything the way Ali did in 1967, when he made the highly controversial decision not to fight for his country in Vietnam. He said his religious beliefs made picking up a rifle unthinkable. Or, as he put it, “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.’’
Whether you believe what Ali did was right or wrong, you can’t dismiss the bravery it took to follow his conscience and the cost that came with it.
That was 50 years ago, and it’s hard to come up with many other athletes who have recently made sacrifices for an ideal. Pat Tillman walked away from the NFL to enlist in the military after the 9/11 attacks. The University of Missouri football team refused to take part in team activities last year until the school system’s president resigned for not addressing racial issues on campus. Those decisions had tangible risks.
There is no risk in wearing “I Can’t Breathe’’ T-shirts to express anger over a death, as LeBron James and other NBA players did in 2014 after a grand jury declined to indict a white police officer who had held a black man in a choke hold before he died.
Among do-little athletes, Michael Jordan tends to get the brunt of the criticism for having never spoken up on social issues, but at least he was honest about it. He wasn’t going to jeopardize his empire for an injustice, unless it involved a scandalous lack of cigars at the country club.
MJ has a lot of company these days. Too many athletes put a toe in the water of social debate. Not enough are willing to dive in the way Ali did. Too scary for them. And too bad.