Muhammad Ali and the Death of Radical Sport

KOBE BRYANT, regarded as one of the finest ever basketball players, represents the worst of modern sport: unshakable egoism combined with political insouciance. In the immediate wake of the murder of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black boy who was shot by a neighbourhood watch volunteer in 2012, Bryant made this statement:

‘I won’t react to something just because I’m supposed to, because I’m an African-American… if we’ve progressed as a society, then you don’t jump to somebody’s defence just because they’re African-American. You sit and you listen to the facts just like you would in any other situation, right? So I won’t assert myself.’

That refusal of assertion reveals a sporting world disconnected from the real struggles of everyday life and the real threat of white supremacy in America. Put Bryant’s passivity next to the fiery words of Muhammad Ali, whose recent death we still mourn:

‘My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother [the Vietcong], or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father… Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.’

Ali could do nothing but ‘assert himself’ and he understood his power to be a voice for all oppressed people, from those fighting imperialism in Africa to those fighting racism on the streets of America. Ali is almost unique in how fully he embodied political activism during his sporting career: he gave up his best fighting years in protest against the Vietnam War, changed his birth name to reveal its slave origins and criticised US military imperialism. The boxing ring itself was a political arena; in the prelude to one of his most momentous fights – against three-time world champion Joe Frasier – Ali characterised his opponent as ‘an Uncle Tom’ who ‘works for the enemy’. Ali’s fight against racial injustice and economic exploitation made him a heroic figure throughout the Global South.

Maybe the stark contrast between Bryant and Ali is unsurprising: Ali began his professional career at a time when politics and sport were often intermingled.

In 1967, Kathrine Switzer defied sexist regulations and completed the Boston Marathon. Switzer’s act was one of solidarity, an extension of the growing women’s liberation movement and she became a feminist icon. Other leading athletes used their platform to accelerate political movements internationally as sporting events became a global phenomenon. Arthur Ashe, three-time Grand Slam tennis champion, helped battle against apartheid South Africa during the 1970s. He used his fame to publicly criticise the regime and his skills in tennis to belittle pro-apartheid athletes. He inspired organised political action within tennis too, founding the first ever Association of Tennis Professionals to protect players from commercial interests. He went on to be one of the leading voices behind the boycott of Wimbledon in 1973. The action was organised in support of a player who had been suspended by the International Tennis Federation for his purported ‘bad standing’ with his country’s national tennis association, but the boycott represented an unease about the marketisation of sport around the world.

Sport increasingly attracted corporate interests, as money flowed into the major Western leagues and competitions. The neoliberal turn of the late 1970s coincided with the decline of ‘athletic activism’ – the heady cultural politics of the 1960s replaced by capitalist triumphalism. Finding a mainstream athlete’s response to the devastation of the Reagan and Thatcher years – riots, poverty, inequality, and mass incarceration – is near impossible.

The rugged individualism of the 1980s spawned an archetype of athletic superstars – preoccupied with fame and money and without any sense of the political stakes – which still holds true to this day. The focus of the sporting calendar tipped toward financial rewards and brand building. Basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar summed up the constrictive mentality that the industry instilled in players: ‘I had to toe a certain line and not be too controversial or too much my own man.’ An athlete’s job is to entertain and succeed within the boundaries dictated to them – there’s no place for radicalism.

Today, many professional athletes are too scared or too apathetic to intervene in political issues. Clubs foster a conservative culture by paying for ‘coaches’ to neutralise potentially damaging statements from their players and who intimidate their athletes with threats to contracts. Hidden in the unerring demand for ‘professionalism’ is the desire for athletes to lead apolitical lives, devoid of outspokenness or unpredictability.

And yet there are signs this dynamic is fraying. Growing awareness about the continuing disposability of black lives has catalysed activism among US athletes. Basketball stars LeBron James and Derrick Rose have expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and when Serena Williams guest-edited an issue of Wired magazine, she spoke as a subjugated minority in America: ‘I’m a Black woman, and I am in a sport that wasn’t really meant for Black people… So to those of you involved in equality movements like Black Lives Matter, I say this: Keep it up. Don’t let those trolls stop you.’

Social media platforms make it harder for clubs to police the opinions of their athletes. When LeBron James Instagrams a picture of himself wearing an ‘I Can’t Breathe’ t-shirt (remembering the last words of Eric Garner, a black man killed by police officers in 2014), he’s participating in a new form of political action. Rhetoric is meme-ified for mass proliferation. It ain’t a blockade or wildcat strike, but Ali would understand the need for symbols.

During and after the Cold War, the number of professional athletes declaring socialist ideals decreased rapidly. To exist in this world was to implicitly accept the political economy that brought you wealth and fame. No professional athlete seemed ready to reject this. Yet amazingly, just last year, Ronda Rousey, one of the most successful Ultimate Fighting Champion fighters in history, endorsed Bernie Sanders for president. Her socialist views should then have been woven into the fabric of her public identity. But instead, she remains noncommittal, not wishing to expand on her political orientation, possibly under the duress of corporate influences. Like so many other modern professional athletes, Ronda chose not to mix her sport with her progressive politics.

In the UK, activism among sports stars is moribund: no athlete spoke up over the killing of Mark Duggan by police officers in 2011; no one responded to Sarah Reed’s mysterious death in police custody last year; Andy Murray’s tweet supporting Scottish independence revealed the aggression that the media is willing to employ in order to keep athletes docile. Journalists, MPs and fans did not expect or want their sporting hero to have an opinion. They wanted him to embody their jingoistic ideals without fuss. A sportsman’s opinion on a democratic vote for independence was deemed ‘inappropriate’, too ‘political’. James McLean, the West Bromwich Albion footballer player who refused to wear a poppy or sing the national anthem last November, faced more extreme vilification from press and fans alike, and was left out to dry by his manager. McLean was born in Derry, Northern Ireland; his refusal of the poppy was in remembrance of the British army’s brutal occupation of his home country. This justification was lost among the reactionary punditry.

The last generation of proudly socialist football icons – think Gary ‘Red Nev’ Neville and Alex ‘Labour through-and-through’ Ferguson – have left the game and we are left with almost no political voices in the UK’s sporting world (discounting the occasional rumours that Sol Campbell might stand as a Tory MP). Recent efforts to change this have been decidedly ineffective. ‘Kick it Out’, an anti-discrimination organisation, was criticised for failing to support a footballer racially abused on the pitch and the ‘Football v Homophobia’ campaign has had little impact on or off the pitch.

So, while the US is seeing a revival of activism in the sporting world, the UK is stagnant. The power and money in elite sport is turning professional athletes into weary actors, ambivalent and scared. An apolitical sporting world is not inevitable: athletes can be progressive, rebellious and loud, and they can galvanise their audiences in the most incredible, arterial ways. Muhammad Ali proved this. Ali also showed that it’s possible to go a step further and sacrifice fame and reputation to advance a revolutionary cause. In the face of growing inequality, poverty and discrimination, we need athletes to be proactive in social change. We need more fighters like Ali.

—Kerem Osborne Dikerdem

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