Muhammad Ali died late yesterday. He was considered the premiere athlete of the 20th Century. He is also possibly one of only a handful whose nickname could be "The Greatest" and no one would really object. As happens these days when iconic individuals pass away, the online tributes have poured in. Reading some of them this morning, I got the impression that Ali was this universally beloved figure. An immensely talented athlete. A pioneer. There isn't really a whiff of how he was a controversial and polarizing figure. You'd think he was everyone's inspiring, slightly boisterous uncle.
That wasn't quite the case. One tribute included his remarks when he refused be conscripted for the Vietnam War.
"I ain't draft dodging. I ain't burning no flag. I ain't running to Canada. I'm staying right here. You want to send me to jail? Fine, you go right ahead. I've been in jail for 400 years. I could be there for 4 or 5 more, but I ain't going no 10,000 miles to help murder and kill other poor people. If I want to die, I'll die right here, right now, fightin' you, if I want to die. You my enemy, not no Chinese, no Vietcong, no Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. Want me to go somewhere and fight for you? You won't even stand up for me right here in America, for my rights and my religious beliefs. You won't even stand up for my rights here at home."
Just imagine for a second that LeBron James said that today in a series of tweets. He would become a pariah in the media. People would boycott his basketball games. He would receive death threats. He would lose sponsorship deals. Talk radio would explode in a supernova of self-righteous indignation. The headlines would read "LeBron's Anti-American Meltdown." Donald Trump would mock him at all his campaign stops and get raucous applause from his supporters.
And theoretically, apart from the draft and the Vietcong, LeBron James could say some of those same things today. The second half concerning equality is unfortunately just as pertinent today as it was nearly half a century ago. Racial inequality is, to our shame, still a major issue our country has yet to fully engage. One of the two major party candidates for President of the United States has suggested banning all people who hold Ali's religious beliefs from this country. That quote is nearly 50 years old and it still still hits like a haymaker today.
That part of Ali's legacy will be downplayed in some areas. His blackness and his Islam-ness will be traded for the idea that he was an icon that transcended those boundaries. People who would have vilified him for those statements will pay him homage because that's what you do when a legend dies. When a person passes away, we immediately start editing their lives into something more palatable and comforting. We remember the achievements without the sacrifices that made it possible. We retroactively remember they were universally loved when at times they were hated, feared, or branded a threat. We want to be inspired by our heroes, but we don't want to be challenged by them.
This isn't anything new. We have turned everyone from Mother Teresa to Martin Luther King, Jr. to the American Founders into flat characters. One could even argue that a majority of Christianity's issues stem from us doing the same thing with Jesus. But when we make our heroes safe, we do a disservice to their memory and we hinder their example from teaching us what we truly need to learn. We're often so arrogant to mistakenly think that we've learned all the lessons that individual taught in life.
Thus it is my hope is that we remember Muhammad Ali and all of our cultural heroes in a more fully. I hope we don't shy away from the facets that challenge us. I hope we don't ignore the flaws and foibles that made them human. To remember and to learn in such a way would truly be the greatest.