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How Muhammad Ali Transformed the Sports World

Vernon Andrews Jun 29, 2016

This might come as a surprise:

Many sports fans in 1964, both white and Black, despised Muhammad Ali after he announced that he had become a Muslim and had joined the Nation of Islam. White codes about Black athletes’ behavior were well entrenched. Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis had both learned the lessons of the bad-ass Jack Johnson, the first Black heavyweight boxing champion, from the early 20th century: Speak quietly and do nothing to upset the racial status quo. Or leave the country.

The Nation of Islam represented Allah and not Jesus. For Black Christians, Cassius Clay’s conversion to Muhammad Ali was sacrilegious and made the race look bad. “Why hast thou forsaken us?” Black people seemed to ask. He was speaking the language of The Nation, which was unfamiliar to them. He sent many Black folks running in the other direction. He was considered by many to be ruining the chances for social equality for everyone else. Not that this was Ali’s burden to change on his own. 

The ‘Big Bang’ for Black Sporting Expression

What Ali did was push the boundaries of social behavior by Black athletes. And thus the die was cast for Black athletes to mimic and live up to the Ali persona of self-love, Black love, religious freedom, ego-centered self-expression, celebration, psychological warfare (described by the media as the more negative “taunting”), self-promotion and norm-crashing individual style. About the only thing he didn’t engage in was shaving his head, preferring instead the Afro hairstyle that was itself a political statement in the 1960s.

His continued resistance to social power as embodied in the white-run institutions of the penal system, the military establishment, the draft board, the boxing syndicates and the federal government — at the expense of his career for several years — was a bold expression of Black power that ultimately sent a shock wave throughout the Black community. Black folks had to question their own commitment to larger social causes, the Black Power movement and how far we would go to fight for social justice. Most were in no way prepared to sacrifice as much as Ali was for the race, their jobs or their families.

Some things were more important than racial pride. Eating, for one. You can’t eat unless you have a job.

With the advent of the Black Panther Party and the other social upheavals of the last half of the 1960s, many Blacks began to see Ali as a hero and a leader. He was just a bit ahead of his time. Even the Black military servicemen fighting in Vietnam, who at first chastised and disliked Ali for his stance against the war, began to see him as a social prophet of sorts.

In truth, that is what Ali represented to Black people — a modern-day prophet living by a religious and social code none of us knew anything about. He was willing to sacrifice everything for a higher purpose.

We are not supposed to whisper that, the prophet thing, but that’s what we felt. He lived in a time of other prophets named King and X, and he was the only one who survived.

Slowly but surely, with Ali setting the example, other athletes didn’t feel so constrained by the tight rules, codes and restrictions on their behavior. San Jose State University Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos protested at the Olympics in Mexico City in 1968 wearing black sunglasses and black socks with no shoes — and raising clenched fists. Sports protest, aided in 1968 by Black Panther imagery, was now okay; Ali had set the bar high. Athletes across college campuses began to protest — with beards, mustaches, Afro haircuts, dashikis and Afrocentric jewelry. Campuses and power structures began fighting back by instituting rules that forbade facial hair and long hair.

These rules, of course, were for all athletes, not just African-Americans. White athletes were upset because they had to cut long hair that protested the older, more conventional system. Hippies and the hippie lifestyle, exemplified by people like UCLA basketball star Bill Walton, promoted freedom of expression, devalued money and challenged bodily conventions such as crew-cut hair and no facial hair.

White athletes, just like Black athletes, were caught in the middle of a social revolution and had to make tough social choices. Compromise and cut your hair — or challenge the system? Many athletes, both Black and white, challenged the status quo and lost. Many were kicked off teams, thus ending their careers, and others were blacklisted. Athletes — both Black and white — were learning the high price of living up to the ideals of justice in sport and society that were set in motion by Muhammad Ali.

End-zone celebrations in professional and collegiate football followed soon after, in the early 1970s. No, end-zone dances were not political in the traditional sense. There were no raised fists or black gloves after touchdowns. Ali broke the door down, but people ran into the house and did what suited their individual fancy. Thus, the freedom of cultural expression for Black folks in integrated sport had its birth with the man we now celebrate as “The Greatest.”

Vernon Andrews teaches history of sport and physical education in the Kinesiology Department at San Jose State University. This article is excerpted from a chapter in his Kindle eBook The Control of Black Expression in American Sport and Society.

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