The “what if” discussions are some of the most fun in sports. What if the Chicago Bulls hadn’t traded Olden Polynice on draft day in 1987 for an unknown rookie named Scottie Pippen? What if Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones didn’t fire head coach Jimmy Johnson after two straight Super Bowl victories? These discussions are perfect for a sports column or a debate in a bar: fun and airy with no stakes beyond the joy of speculative debate.
But if you are going to have these discussions about the places where the sports world and the real world collide, you had better know your history—not only of the athletes but the era—or you will fail your subject and your readers.
Sports Illustrated’s Richard O’Brien performed such a disservice with a “what if” piece about how history would have been altered if a young fighter named Cassius Clay Jr. had never met Malcolm X. The supposition is that Ali would have still flirted with Malcolm’s black nationalist, separatist organization the Nation of Islam, but would never have joined. He therefore would have never stood up to the war in Vietnam, never would have stayed in the ring too long, never would have gotten Parkinson’s disease, and in this parallel universe, would have retired undefeated, dying at age 100, rich, healthy, happy, and the best of all time.
What is so wrong about this? Well, everything. Like a circle of stupid, you don’t know where to begin.
First on the history, O’Brien acknowledges that Cassius Clay first came into contact with the Nation of Islam before he ever met Malcolm, but undersells its influence upon him dramatically. He writes, “Raised in the still-segregated South, taught by his father to fear and distrust white people but imbued with a natural curiosity about the world, Cassius Clay attended his first Nation of Islam meeting in 1960. He was soon a member of the relatively new organization, a controversial offshoot of established Islam. (This was kept quiet, to protect his blossoming boxing career.) It was Malcolm, though, who gave the young fighter a grounding in the true faith, and a sense of where it could lead him, after the two met in ’62.”
This is misleading. First, Ali’s father taught him more than just to “fear and distrust white people.” Cassius Clay Sr. read the works of Marcus Garvey and his gospel of racial separation and nationalism, teachings that greatly influenced Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam. O’Brien makes it sound like Cassius Clay Sr. was just muttering, “Don’t trust whitey.” In reality, he was a political actor who had an influence on his son. Secondly, Ali did a lot more than just attend meetings before meeting Malcolm. He was recruited by Nation of Islam member Capt. Sam X of Miami, later known known as Minister Abdul Rahman. His relationship with Capt. Sam lasted for years and involved debate, discussion, and political training.