I can perfectly recall sitting in the living room with my father, watching as Ali danced around the ring. He moved with a rare mix of natural fluidity and severe power, dispatching with one rough, plodding opponent after another. He seemed the perfect embodiment of masculine striving.
But it was not until after the match, that I began leaning into the TV screen. That’s when Ali would unleash one of his verbal rants, full of braggadocio. Full of self confidence, Ali would proclaim to the world, I am the greatest.
In an age of compulsive trash talking athletes, this might not seem such a noteworthy innovation. But in a time when blacks were considered plainly inferior, Ali suggested an alternative. He did not keep his mouth shut. He would not abide by those social customs that had conditioned black Americans to subvert their thoughts. This was rather new, and rather inspiring. Along the way, he gave countless American blacks a model of achievement. Failure suddenly seems less customary. And the possibility of playing the part of a champion seems a little more possible.
That is what great athletes can do: they give us a model of striving for human perfection. They ascend because they transcend. An old girlfriend used to always ask me, why do we need to be so intense about our sports heroes? The answer is simple. It’s because they transcend the physical or cultural laws that enmesh the rest of us. Certainly, this is what Ali accomplished when he perched himself atop the sporting world, then sung the sublime tune of self-worth. He gave us a model of human striving. He taught us to affix value to our lives. He said believe in yourself. Be yourself. For that I am thankful.
So I am deeply sensitive when people suggest that sports amount to little more than a ball bouncing, bouncing, bouncing across a court (as the same old girlfriend used to say). For those who so casually dismiss sports for its adolescent kitsch, I would point out there is a deeper meaning: For the kid in the ghetto, the ability to bounce, bounce, bounce the ball might be his only hope for dignity. Sports nurtures dreams of achieving self confidence and masculine striving for the skinny kid watching a boxer dance around the ring with sublime ease.
And maybe that's why we give our athletes a free pass when they commit violent acts of crime. Allen Iverson got into a violent brawl during his senior year in high school. Chairs were thrown. People got hurt. He was sentenced to jail time. It did not matter. Governor Wilder granted him clemency four months into his sentence. Philadelphia 76ers owner Pat Croce had a smile wide as a coat hanger when he made Iverson the overall pick in the 1996 draft. Fans all over Philly pumped their fists in excitement. Meanwhile, the court dockets are studded with the indiscretions of our athletes. Allegedly, Kirby Puckett sexually assaulted a woman in a restaurant by pulling her into a men’s room and fondling her. It was reported weeks later that both his former wife and supposed mistress claimed he was abusive. Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was accused of murder. That same year he won the NFL's defensive MVP award. And need I mention the name that even today damn near causes a race riot? Yes, O.J. There is a definite pattern here. All got a free pass.
This is wrong. I do not think athletes should get a free pass. I don’t think we should train our children and future athletes to believe that they are above the law and morality. But I do fall victim to worshipping athletes myself. The heroes of my youth taught me a lot about life. They taught me never to give up. They gave me a model of striving to emulate. This is sports at its best: a tribute to the striving for human perfection.