“Boxing is nothing, just satisfying to some bloodthirsty people. I’m no longer a Cassius Clay, a Negro from Kentucky. I belong to the world, the black world. I’ll always have a home in Pakistan, in Algeria, in Ethiopia. This is more than money.” – Muhammad Ali
Can ESPN please declare a company-wide moratorium on comparing current athletes to Muhammad Ali? I thought it was unfortunate when columnist Jemele Hill wrote that anti-choice icon Tim Tebow was “as courageous” as Ali. But that comparison is inspired compared to recent comments by “ESPN’s The Sports Guy” Bill Simmons. Simmons wrote that Tiger Woods’s return to golf from “sex addiction” would be tougher than Ali’s return to the ring after being banished for opposing the war in Vietnam. Yes, for Simmons, Ali’s efforts to resist the military draft are dwarfed in importance by Tiger’s efforts to resist nookie.
For the uninitiated, Bill Simmons is a pop-culture vulture in the best and worst sense. If you want 3,000 words about The Real World, he’s your fella. If you want even 300 words about the actual real world, you’re better off reading a TV Guide. This became crystal clear when, in an online chat, Simmons wrote,
“Tiger’s comeback is going to be the most fascinating running sports story of my lifetime. I really believe that. We only get a handful of truly transcendent athletes per lifetime, he’s one of them, and yet, none of them have ever been tested this way. The only thing that comes close: When Ali returned from 4 years of boxing exile for refusing to serve in Vietnam.”
An incredulous reader typed back, "Really Bill? Ali coming back to win the title after being banned from the sport for religious convictions that prevented him from serving in a war that continues to effect the course of American history today, ‘comes close’ to Tiger missing 5 months for a cavalcade of bimbos and a staged sex rehab?”
Simmons’ retort: “Here’s the big difference though: Everyone was rooting for Ali. He never came even 10% close to facing the scrutiny, vitriol and 24/7 news cycle microscope that Tiger will face." He later sniffed, “You don’t know your Ali history.” Unless by “Ali history” Simmons means movies starring Will Smith, this is idiocy.
Yes, when Ali returned to fight, he didn’t have a 24-hour sports media cycle and 10 billion blogs charting his every move. But while “old media” was smaller, it was also more centralized and able to shape public opinion. When Ali took his stand, the great Red Smith wrote, “Cassius makes himself as sorry a spectacle as those unwashed punks who picket and demonstrate against the war.” In the Los Angeles Times, Jim Murray called the Champ, “the white man’s burden.” Beyond the sports page, Ali also had other concerns that Tiger couldn’t comprehend: daily and credible death threats against his family, financial ruin, and a five year prison sentence in Leavenworth that he was challenging on appeal.