Communication Currents

Muhammad Ali and Political Athletes

August 1, 2009
Political Communication, Sports Communication

Muhammad Ali has long stood as a globally-recognized image of athletic superiority and political courage . For some, he symbolizes a popular longing for politically vocal athletes. As sports stars like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods repeatedly refuse to speak up on political crises, Ali is constantly referred to as a spokesperson on issues that seem to bridge his past to our future. As such, he represents a communication-based understanding of social obligation placed on star athletes by popular audiences.

There are two basic, popular versions of Ali today. One is the young, virile fighter who referred to himself as a “new kind of Black man,” and who refused induction into the Army during the Vietnam War for religious reasons. The second is the now-iconic, Parkinson's-stricken figure who lit the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996. Ali, like any historical icon reproduced in films, documentaries, and other media, has become a complex and contradictory exemplar for social justice and advocacy. This is especially true because his image has been adjusted to fit our own needs.

While outspoken sports stars like Ali are only granted heroic status retrospectively, it is also clear that political silence is seen as a fundamental failure among modern athletes who are believed to possess a profound capacity for social change. Professional Golfers' Association (PGA) star Tiger Woods has especially been criticized for his silence around race issues. Recently, for example, Golf Channel anchor Kelly Tilghman suggested that his competitors could “lynch him in a back alley” to end his dominance; Woods allowed the incident to pass.'s Scoop Jackson described this as a failure of the late Earl Woods' prophecy about his son Tiger's capacity to “transcend this game” and do “more than any man in history to change the course of humanity.”

Woods' failure becomes especially acute in light of fantasies some hold about sports as a model for American race relations. Clearly, contemporary athletes who might discuss racial politics are placed in a difficult position. Sports fans often believe that sports is a context for racial harmony. As a result, an athlete who is vocal about race relations is easily criticized for breaking the social contract between fans and players.

Mediated reproductions of Ali's image have to be considered within this context. In sports culture, the words of athlete-heroes have the capacity to shape fans' moral consciousness, as their physical excellence affords at least some level of political authority. But the meanings of an athlete's career, as Ali's life illustrates, fluctuate through physical states and political histories. Heroic images are captured and reproduced in films and documentaries for the sake of preserving words and exploits that shaped history. They are available to us whenever we need them to understand a contemporary crisis. If our present day sports stars won't speak up, Ali can always be brought back through a film or TV special to instruct us about how to live.

Generations of Americans did not grow up with condemnations over Ali's refusal of induction during the Vietnam War, or the anger his membership in the Nation of Islam invoked among Whites. Still, he has emerged as a consensually noble and unproblematic champion for civil rights. For the more historically-conscious, there are costs to forgetting how politically disruptive Ali was. While the style of his words may be carried forward, their political substance is often left behind. Contemporary TV specials, films, and documentaries often retrofit Ali into a comfortable, nonmilitant civil rights history. Seeing history this way tends to decrease, rather than increase, our anxiety about current race and religious relations. It is easier, today, to locate Ali's disruptive statements on race, religion, and war as important moments in a civil rights past. Against Ali's reduced image, then, we must wonder about our real preferences for politically-vocal athletes. Criticisms of Jordan, Woods, and other sports superstars are relevant and perhaps even fair, but if they were to speak up, what would we have them say?

Because athletic heroism is always grounded in a finite body or career, athletes' voices only endure insofar as they are modified and reproduced through media technologies. Ali continues to matter, in a moral sense, as long as media reproductions allow him to vocally intervene in our own crises and interrupt our ways of thinking, just as he did during his career. It is to be expected that any historical figure's words and deeds will be reconstructed for contemporary audiences. The question, from a communication perspective, is how historical figures intervene when their voices are reshaped around contemporary racial or religious preferences.

About the author (s)

Daniel A. Grano

University of North Carolina

Assistant Professor