For most Americans, the world of professional sports has been a place to escape the tumultuous work week, their personal problems, and most importantly, politics. However, as The Nation’s sport journalist and author Dave Zirin explained to me in a recent conversation, there are many athletes past and present who have used “the game” to raise the political consciousness of Americans. Zirin explained to me the significance of athletes such as Muhammad Ali, and why there are more political athletes today than in years past.
Kevin Patrick Kelly: What is the significance of the legacy of Muhammad Ali?
Dave Zirin: His legacy, I really think that in the 1960s, he made people feel brave at a time when it was really needed. I think in many respects his legacy is understated because the 60s, and indeed the entire post-war era were really defined by two movements: the antiwar struggle regarding Vietnam and the Black Freedom Struggle. These movements seemed destined to exist on parallel tracks, not necessarily crossing. They were segregated by race, segregated by class, and then you had the Heavy Weight Champion of the World with one foot in each of those camps. Really bringing them together culturally and providing a common icon for both of those movements.
I’ve done interviews and I’ve read interviews with the early antiwar activists who were very conscious of the charge that they weren’t brave, that they were cowards. That was the big charge thrown against them, and them saying things like, “They can’t say we aren’t brave anymore because we’re on the side of the Heavyweight Champ.”
Then, regarding the Black Freedom Struggle, Ali was actually a foe of the early part of the Civil Rights Movement. Yet for young civil rights activists, his brashness was very attractive and then when he came out against the war, as one member of SNCC told me, he really cleared the ground, cleared the space for them to come out against the war too because they were also against the war, but felt they didn’t have the space to make that kind of stand.
In the broader cultural sense, the very idea that in the early sixties, years before Stokely Carmichael coined the phrase “Black Power,” years before the idea of “Black is Beautiful,” or “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” were part of the vernacular, you had the Champion of the World calling himself the greatest and talking about how pretty he was, and now caring who that offended. I think his significance, who he reached, the lives he affected, I really do believe is incalculable.
KPK: Other than Ali, some are unaware of other athletes who took courageous political stands. Explain to people the significance of revolutionary athletes such as Tommy Smith and John Carlos.
DZ: They were part of what was called, The Olympic Project for Human Rights. I think a lot of people, even young people, are familiar with the moment of them raising their fists, but don’t realize that it was a movement called The Olympic Project for Human Rights. It was an effort to organize Black athletes and anybody who wanted to be in solidarity with Black athletes to actually boycott the 1968 Olympics over a series of very concrete demands.
It was in solidarity with the Black Freedom Struggle, but they also had their own demands like hiring more Black coaches, disinviting South Africa, and Rhodesia because they were an apartheid country, getting Avery Brundage fired who was an open proud fascist, and there other demand ties into what we were talking about before. One of their demands was to restore Muhammad Ali’s title, and they called Ali the “warrior saint of the Black athletes’ revolt.” Muhammad Ali was very much tied to their consciousness and what they were doing.
Now, the boycott idea fell through, but what didn’t fall through — And by the way, the reason it fell through, was two reasons and this is really interesting. The first is that, they won, partially. South Africa Rhodesia was disinvited from the Olympics as they were organizing. That took some of the wind out of the sails, but then there was bigger fact too which is that most athletes who tried to organize, felt both pressure from the United States Olympic Community to not take part. The boycott fell through, but they still have to make a statement and that’s where they came up with the idea of wearing black gloves but also wearing beads.
You can see in the photo, it’s a protest against lynching. They are not wearing shoes. It’s a statement about poverty in the United States. There is a lot going on in that photo. They are also wearing buttons that say: “Olympic Project for Human Rights.” The Silver Medalist on that platform, Peter Norman, is also wearing a button and paid a terrible price for standing in solidarity with them. The last part of that which I think gets overlooked, is that to even make that statement they had to be on the Medal Platform.
Peter Norman was a little bit of an unexpected twist, but they raced their race so they would both be on that Medal Platform. Watch the race, you see John Carlos looking back to Tommy throughout the first half of the race because there was something bigger than the goal for them. There was the movement.
KPK: One athlete that you discuss in one of your books, which drew my attention, was Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. He refused to stand for the National Anthem at several NBA games. Talk about the significance of this athlete.
DZ: I think it’s best to understand two athletes simultaneously. That’s Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and Craig Hodges. Both of whom played in the 1990s and both of whom were drummed out of the NBA. That was actually much worse than it is now. People are talking about how there are no political athletes, there are more athletes today that take political stances then there were in the 1990s. That was the age of Michael Jordan in its total ascendency.
Craig Hodges and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf were both very good players, but they were also those players that were certainly expendable to the project of the NBA. The results of that were they were drummed out of the league for taking political stands. Their stands are actually similar.
Craig Hodges, his sin was showing up to the White House after the Bulls won the title in 1991, and he handed a letter to George Bush talking about racism in the United States and the war that had already started in Iraq. He wore a dashiki to the White House. If you look at the picture of the ’91 Bulls at the White House, they are all wearing suits and ties, he’s wearing a dashiki. He also spoke out about Michael Jordan not doing enough for the community … Even though he had won three consecutive NBA long distance shootouts in a row; he had found himself drummed out of the league …
And Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. He made the decision that he did not want to come out for the National Anthem before games in 1996. He had a question posed to him directly, where they asked, “How can you do this? Don’t you realize the flag is a symbol for freedom and democracy throughout the world?”
He said, “It may be a symbol of freedom and democracy to some, but it’s a symbol of tyranny and oppression to others.”
When he said that, the clock was on for him to be drummed out of the league. It really can be said how policed these spaces are and that’s certainly part of the Rauf story and the Hodges story.
KPK: The one political athlete that my generation is certainly familiar with is Pat Tillman. He infamously quit his job in the NFL to serve his country overseas. Still, what I saw with Tillman, I now see with Ali. Why do you think, to quote the intellectual Dr. Cornel West, there is an attempt to “Santa-Clausify” athletes such as Tillman or Ali?
DZ: Because they cannot make them disappear. I think this is also true of icons such as Dr. King and Malcolm X. See, any time you have resistance, it seems that the mainstream media, the corporate media, the corporate history books have two choices. They either bury you, and we could talk about people like Tommy Smith, John Carlos, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, and Craig Hodges as people who have been buried or they appropriate you. Muhammad Ali is just too damn big to make disappear. He influenced too many people. You cannot make that disappear.
Similarly, Pat Tillman, you cannot just make an NFL player who quit to join the Army Rangers and then die, disappear. Now, what you can do, is tell their story in a highly modulated way. Tillman dies, but you don’t hear that while he was overseas, he soured against the War, particularly Iraq, which he described as an illegal intervention, but he was in communication with Noam Chomsky. I’ve emailed members of Pat Tillman’s family and Noam Chomsky on this. I can confirm this, that these guys were talking back and forth.
Then he dies under extremely, extremely problematic circumstances. There is the situation of “friendly fire,” but also a situation where his family was lied to about the circumstances of his death for days after it had happened. He was lied about by people like George W. Bush and Senator John McCain, although McCain may not have known the truth. He was even lied about at remembrances, including his own funeral. This is utterly outrageous.
There are people in Pat Tillman’s family who are convinced to this day that there is something being covered up. That it was very convenient to happen, not just because he was coming out against the war, but more because it happened concurrent with the Abu Ghraib photos — There was just a lot going on in terms of the crisis with the war to have this kind of thing happen. His clothes were burned at the site, his military field journal was immediately destroyed — He really set them on edge.
Like I said again, he was coming out against the war, this part of the history is not told. Now, flip that to Muhammad Ali. When he died, I thought it was very interesting he’s often described as being — Someone who was very unpopular because he was against war and against racism. Now, look, unless you are Donald Trump, who is for war and racism, you use these words and it’s so problematic because when you say that you are against war and racism then not only does that automatically identify him with the overwhelming amount of people in your viewing audience, but that sounds so saintly. Against war. Against racism.
But then, it also makes no sense as to why he was so hated in the sixties unless you think people in the sixties were really backward. Or really Neanderthals … It’s not the truth. He wasn’t against war. He was against Empire. He was against colonialism. He was against what was happening in Vietnam. Just like he was against what was happening to Native American people in the United States. Just like he was against the subjugation of the newly emerging African nations in the anti-colonial era. He was against the oppression of the Palestinian people. He was against colonialism and obviously that’s a dangerous thing to celebrate.
Secondly, he wasn’t just against racism. He was for Black independence … he was for a separate Black nation. This is not the sort of thing, especially in an era of Black Lives Matter, that mainstream media is going to celebrate …
KPK: Fast forward to today, I do not see a similar figure to Muhammad Ali or any of the aforementioned athletes in the world of professional sports. Why do think more athletes are not politically conscious?
DZ: First of all, Muhammad Ali does not happen without the 1960s. He didn’t just come down from Planet Awesome. If it wasn’t for the 1960s and the movements that existed, he would have been Cassius Clay the professional boxer that brought the showmanship of professional wrestling into boxing. Just as he shaped his times, he was also shaped by his times.
Whenever we ask, why aren’t more athletes political? My response is, why aren’t more people political? Why aren’t more people in the streets? Why do we ask of athletes what we wouldn’t ask of ourselves? We cannot contextualize athletes, that’s the first thing.
That second part, that’s why there are more political athletes now. What we have seen in recent years, in terms of athletes both standing with the Black Lives Matter movement and taking stands against homophobia — These are new developments, but they only exist because people have been taking a stand against police brutality and people have taken a stand against homophobia. Without those struggles, you are not going to see a reflector in the world of athletics.
One thing we have seen in recent years, whether it was Lebron James making statements with his “I Can’t Breathe” shirt or whether it was Serena Williams returning to Indian Wells to raise money for the Equal Justice Initative. Or whether it was Jason Collins or Michael Sam or Megan Rapinoe or Robby Rogers standing up for people in the formation of LGBT organizations such as You Can Play and Athlete Ally. These are products of their times.
If you want athletes speaking out, we’ve got to think about what we are doing outside of the stadium.
Notes in the Margin: Dave Zirin wrote the introduction for Craig Hodges’ upcoming autobiography, “Long Shot: The Struggles and Triumphs of an NBA Freedom Fighter,” which is to be released in December.
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