people thought I was a hero. Some people said that what I did
was wrong. But everything I did was according to my conscience.
I made a stand all people, not just black people, should have
thought about making, because it wasn't just black people being
drafted. The government had a system where the rich man's son
went to college, and the poor man's son went to war."
- Muhammad Ali
Ali celebrated his 65th birthday this week, and the tributes are
reading like love letters from besotted tweens. ESPN alone has
dedicated a stream of programming, including one special called
Ali Rap, which contends the great boxing champion actually invented
rap music. (No truth to the rumor that ESPN is also producing
Ali's Astrophysics, which contends that he, not Isaac Newton,
first posited the inverse-square law of universal gravitation.)
rush to adulation comes with an unprecedented push by Ali's business
agents to market him as a modern-day Elvis. The Champ, who now
suffers from Parkinson's disease and dementia, last year made
a deal with CKX Inc. for US$50 million. CKX Inc. is the same company
that put Presley's image on velvet paintings and commemorative
shot glasses around the world.
Inc. marked The Champ's birthday with the release of a new line
of snack foods bearing his likeness. With names such as "Rumble,"
"Shuffle" and "Jabs" and flavors such as "Fruit Fight," "Thrill-A-Dill-A"
and "Slammin' Salsa," the snacks will target college students
across the country.
The 18-to-24 set is the perfect demographic for Ali, according
to Charles Sharp, professor of marketing at the University of
Louisville. As Sharp told the Associated Press, young students
are ideal since market research shows they know "the Ali brand"
but are unaware of his early years as an unrepentant black nationalist
and resister to the war in Vietnam.
going to remember the media-spun image of Ali, which is mostly
positive," Sharp said.
early 1966 the US Army came
calling for Ali, and he was
classified 1-A for the draft.
He got the news surrounded
by reporters and blurted
one of the most famous phrases
of the decade, "Man, I ain't got
no quarrel with them Vietcong."
irony of this repellent spectacle is that as the Ali brand grows
in stature, his all-but-forgotten history as a war resister could
not be more relevant. Today Iraq is the new Vietnam, with words
and phrases like "quagmire," "body bags" and "civilian death tolls"
returning to the national lexicon. At such a moment remembering
the actual Ali becomes a question of salvaging a past that can
offer a challenge to the horrors of the present.
Ali's brilliance was not that he was some kind of antiwar prophet.
He wasn't Malcolm X or Martin Luther King Jr. in boxing gloves,
debating foreign policy between rounds. But unlike the Ivy League
advisers who made up the "best and brightest," Ali understood
then that there was justice and injustice, right and wrong. He
knew that not taking a stand could be as political a statement
as taking one. This was Ali's code, and he never wavered.
early 1966 the US Army came calling for Ali, and he was classified
1-A for the draft. He got the news surrounded by reporters and
blurted one of the most famous phrases of the decade, "Man, I
ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong."
was an astounding statement. As Mike Marqusee outlines in his
Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the 60s, there
was little opposition to the war at the time. The antiwar movement
was in its infancy, and most of the country still stood behind
the President. Life magazine's cover read, "Vietnam: The War Is
Worth Winning." The song "Ballad of the Green Berets" was climbing
And then there was Ali. As longtime peace activist Daniel Berrigan
said, "It was a major boost to an antiwar movement that was very
white. He was not an academic or a bohemian or a clergyman. He
couldn't be dismissed as cowardly."
could have recanted, apologized, or signed up on some cushy USO
gig boxing for the troops and the cameras, ultimately to go back
to making money. But he refused. At one press conference later
that year, he was expected to apologize for his "un-American"
remarks. Instead he said, "Keep asking me, no matter how long.
On the war in Vietnam, I sing this song, I ain't got no quarrel
with the Vietcong. Clean out my cell and take my tail to jail.
'Cause better to be in jail fed than to be in Vietnam dead."
position gave courage to people around the country to stand up
and be heard. In 1967, over the objections of many supporters
in the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King came out against
the war. In his initial statements, he said, "Like Muhammad Ali
puts it, we are all - black and brown and poor - victims of the
same system of oppression."
could have recanted, apologized,
or signed up on some cushy
USO gig boxing for the troops
and the cameras, ultimately to go
back to making money.
But he refused. At one
press conference later that year,
he was expected to apologize
for his "un-American" remarks.
Instead he said, "Keep asking me,
no matter how long. On the war
in Vietnam, I sing this song,
I ain't got no quarrel with
the Vietcong. Clean out my cell
and take my tail to jail.
'Cause better to be in jail fed
than to be in Vietnam dead."
was stripped of his title, costing him millions of dollars. He
was given a five-year prison sentence, which was later overturned
sportswriter Jerry Izenberg offered to find him asylum in Canada,
but Ali refused, saying, "My people built the United States and
that's where I'll be." Ali was banished from the fight game, but
his stature among an emerging antiwar majority was never higher.
The late actor Richard Harris said it best when he commented,
"All boxers would sell their soul to become heavyweight champion
of the world. He regained his soul by giving it up."
the corrupt boxing world strove to fill the now-vacant title,
protesters appeared outside the bouts with placards reading, "Hell
No, We Ain't Goin'" and "Fight Racism, Free Muhammad Ali."
himself said, "Everybody knows I'm the champion. My ghost will
haunt all the arenas. I'll be there, wearing a sheet and whispering,
as Ali's handlers turn the man into a vendor of snack food, while
hundreds of thousands die in an unspeakably immoral war, I pray
that the ghost of the Ali of old returns to haunt us once again.
I hope late at night in the White House, as Bush gets up for some
"pretzels," a sharp breeze tickles and then singes the back of
his neck, the breeze becoming a whipping wind as the words whisper:
We are happy
to offer our congrats to Dave Zirin, who has been named Press
Action's 2006 Sportswriter of the Year for the second year in
a row. This is the citation at pressaction.com: "Many of us tune
into sports as a distraction from the 'real world.' But through
his writings, Zirin doesn't let us forget, for example, how racism
remains entrenched in professional sports and how nationalism
and militarism are tightly woven into the fabric of most professional
U.S. sports leagues. This two-time winner of this award is the
rare sportswriter who examines these connections. Here's hoping
the Washington Post dumps Tony Kornheiser, who hasn't written
a readable column in years, from its sports page and signs Zirin
as his replacement."
Dave has also gotten himself a new blog site, www.myspace.com/edgeofsports,
which he invites you to visit. His new book, "What's My Name Fool?
Sports and Resistance in the United States," is now in stores.
You can receive his column, Edge of Sports, every week by emailing
firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com
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