Will there ever be another athlete who becomes a human referendum on race, politics, religion and foreign policy, forcing Americans by his very presence to decide where they stand on contentious issues? It is unlikely, in part because Muhammad Ali's successful reinvention of the American superstar sportsman led indirectly but inexorably to a professional athlete class so wealthy it is now part of the very system that young Ali rumbled against.
The morning after defeating Sonny Liston in Miami, Ali, then Cassius Clay, announced he had joined the Nation of Islam. It was Feb. 25, 1964, just three months after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, two weeks after the Beatles first appeared on Ed Sullivan, and one year before Malcolm X was gunned down. The world around Ali was changing, and he reflected that as well as catalyzed it. As he told Sports Illustrated in 1967, after he refused induction into the Armed Forces, "I've left the sports pages. I've gone onto the front page."
No athlete or entertainer had taken such a stand: Jesse Owens, Joe Louis and Elvis Presley had all served. The leading columnists of the day were disgusted; Ali was stripped of the heavyweight title and denied his livelihood as a boxer for three years, all of which turned him into a countercultural icon in a nation coming to reject the Vietnam War. Through the maelstrom of his exile and return, his lecturing on college campuses and his meetings with African American leaders, Ali's political life became as central a part of his persona as his success in the ring.
Many of his fellow athletes, including Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Wilt Chamberlain and Willie Davis, would join together in public shows of support for Ali and, inspired by the boxer-turned-activist, they would go on to agitate for religious and political rights. Lew Alcindor became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in the black power salute on the medal stand in Mexico City. For the first time in American history, athletes unleashed their political voice.
And soon, these newly empowered athletes turned their attention to where the real power lies in American society: money.
Civic struggles gave way to financial battles. In 1969, St. Louis Cardinal outfielder Curt Flood challenged baseball's reserve clause, which basically bound players to one team for their entire careers. He took his case all the way to the Supreme Court before ultimately losing. Six years later, however, an arbitrator ruled against Major League Baseball, allowing for free agency. In the 1980s and 1990s, players of every major American team sport went on strike for better pay and better treatment. The World Series itself was cancelled in 1994.
Would athletes have taken on team owners if Ali hadn't "gone onto the front page"? Perhaps not. He cracked the brittle affectation that sport existed apart from the rest of society — which finally manifested itself in athletes demanding, and receiving, a greater share of the immense income their sports were generating. Never again would athletes, white or black, quietly accept whatever salary their teams deigned to pay them. Ali had shown them their political power, and it was only a matter of time before they also realized their economic power.
But with greater wealth came a reluctance to speak truth to power. When was the last time you heard a star athlete making a controversial political statement or taking an unpopular stand?
Michael Jordan, perhaps the athlete closest to Ali in terms of his career arc — he too went into exile from his sport during his prime — and his global fame, summed up the conundrum of the modern athlete better than anyone when asked why he wasn't endorsing Harvey Gantt, a progressive African American candidate, in the 1990 North Carolina Senate race against conservative Jesse Helms. "Republicans wear sneakers too," he said.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, few athletes have publicly opposed US foreign policy, staying quiet in response to the Iraq war, Guantanamo, the CIA torture program and all the rest. Even the exceptions to that rule haven't drawn much attention to themselves, like Ali did. In the 2004 baseball season, for example, Carlos Delgado of the Toronto Blue Jays refused to stand during "God Bless America" because of his opposition to U.S. wars in the Middle East — yet his teammates weren't even aware of his views until the Toronto Star published a story on the subject. (And when Delgado was traded to the Mets, he chose to stand again.)
According to Forbes, there are now more than 80 athletes earning more than $20 million a year in salary and endorsements. At least two, Jordan and Tiger Woods, have become billionaires. Endorsement deals for some athletes can run into the nine figures, dwarfing even their eight-figure salaries. That's a lot to lose; perhaps too much to risk taking the courageous positions that made Ali the compelling figure that he was. Would any of today's stars, even those who wore hoodies and Black Lives Matter T-shirts to protest the shooting of Trayvon Martin, chance a three year exile — and the loss of tens of millions of dollars — for a sociopolitical cause?
"Ali was one of the first athletes to speak his mind, and that opened the door for the many who do so today. ... He freed us all in that way." The man who sang those praises for Ali was Derek Jeter, the retired Yankee shortstop who never uttered a controversial, or even particularly interesting, statement his entire career. And why would he? His sponsors — Nike, Gatorade, Ford, Movado, Gillette, Visa — would not look kindly on, or write checks to, a rabble-rouser.
When Ali refused induction into the U.S. military, he had plenty on the line: namely, public approval and his freedom. But the one thing he wasn't putting at risk was the potential for dynastic wealth, which is what the young, gifted athlete now has when he turns pro, in part because of the transformation in sports that Ali helped to bring about. We like to reassure ourselves that a few hundred million dollars wouldn't have changed Ali's iconoclasm — surely he could never be bought. Contemporary superstar athletes, many of them comfortably in the top 1% in terms of income and wealth, do not seem to have that kind of fortitude.
Karl Taro Greenfeld is a novelist and journalist. He is the editor of Sports Illustrated's "Muhammad Ali: The Tribute."