“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.
Ali also endured the full weight of the U.S. government on his back. The day of Ali’s conviction, the U.S. Congress voted overwhelmingly to extend the draft and make it a federal crime to desecrate the flag. Ali’s passport was revoked and the FBI bugged his phone.
But while the media, the state, and the lunatic right were in full froth, Ali was becoming a resistance icon throughout the world. There were pickets of support from Guyana to Ghana, from Cairo to Karachi. During the first major British demonstration against the war in April 1967, one slogan was: “LBJ: Don’t Send Muhammad Ali to War.”
Dave Kindred, the veteran sportswriter, captured this dynamic when he wrote, “You had riots in the streets; you had assassinations; you had the war in Vietnam. It was a violent, turbulent, almost indecipherable time in America, and Ali was in all of those fires at once, in addition to being heavyweight champion of the world.”
When Ali returned to the ring, he had a global movement claiming him as their "warrior prince” while the pro-war lobby wanted him eliminated. He also came back a slower fighter and found out, to his own surprise, he could take a ferocious beating and still emerge victorious. He paid a terrible price for that pounding, although years later, he still maintains that he has no regrets.
“Some people thought I was a hero,” he says in his book Soul of a Butterfly. “Some people said that what I did was wrong. But everything I did was according to my conscience. I wasn’t trying to be a leader. I just wanted to be free. And I made a stand that 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.”
Ali has “no regrets” but Tiger sure does. He regrets he was caught. He regrets losing sponsors. He regrets that his private life has become reality television for “culture vultures” like Simmons. But outside the 24-hour sports bubble the Tiger story is little more than cocktail chatter. As Bill Maher wrote Friday on the Huffington Post, “I haven’t commented on Tiger Woods much because, well, he’s just a golfer and it took me this long to give a shit.” Maher isn’t alone. In the Bill Simmons "Sports Guy World," I’m sure the Tiger Woods Reality Show feels bigger than anything Ali endured. But in the reality based community, the legend of the Champ only grows.