If only India had sportspersons like Muhammad Ali today

The American boxing legend used his position to stand up for his people against power, at great personal and professional cost. Indian celebrities are doing the opposite.

BySidharth Singh
If only India had sportspersons like Muhammad Ali today
Shambhavi Thakur
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On February 2, US popstar Rihanna tweeted a sparse sentence to bring attention to the ongoing farmer protests in India. “Why aren’t we talking about this!? #FarmersProtest,” she wrote.

The tweet garnered much attention, but perhaps none expected a response from the government of India. India’s ministry of external affairs issued a panicked statement detailing everything from “vested interest groups trying to enforce their agenda on these protests” to the desecration of Mahatma Gandhi’s statues across the world. The ministry even set its own Twitter trends of #IndiaTogether and #IndiaAgainstPropaganda.

Sportspersons including Virat Kohli, Anil Kumble, Rohit Sharma, Ravi Shastri took to circulating the ministry’s statement to register their support for the government, often with, as some have noticed, identical tweets.

To the disappointment of many cricket followers, these ranks were joined by the widely loved, and famously introverted, Sachin Tendulkar. Many felt disheartened that the silent warrior who let his bat do the talking on the pitch finally came out in the open, not for India’s democracy but for the very forces that threaten it.

But as our democracy is now tested, India must realise that its celebrities and sportspersons are not abandoning the towers of freedom under siege. Indeed, our celebrities and sportspersons never manned those towers to begin with. India’s mainstream sports arena has been a barren wasteland when it comes to taking a principled stand for anything political, anything that might actually have an immediate cost.

If even a sporting great like Tendulkar is uncomfortable with a basic sentence on political matters in India, juxtaposed with “external” America’s vibrant history of athletic-political activism — overwhelmingly critical of America’s internal matters — Indian cricketers might blush in embarrassment.

In 1967, Kathy Switzer ran the Boston Marathon which had seen no female participation for 70 years despite there being no written rule against it. Switzer was manhandled by a male organiser who attempted to stop her. She persisted to set a record.

The Black Power salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympic Games to protest racial discrimination in America is ranked among the most iconic photographs from the global sports event.

Billie Jean King’s Battle of the Sexes in 1973 is still regarded as a resounding statement against gender discrimination in America.

Mahmoud Abdul Rauf in 1996 refused to stand for the American anthem, Star Spangled Banner, to protest the country’s history of tyranny, and for consecutive games in a series, recited Islamic prayers instead. As recently as 2016, Colin Kaepernick took a knee as the American anthem played to protest police shootings of Black people in the country.

But when it comes to political statements in sports, there could be no better tutor for Indian celebrities than boxing’s loudest mouth, the man who was as quick with his words as he was with his fists, who claimed he “handcuffed lightning, and put thunder in jail”: the floating, stinging, trash-talking Muhammad Ali.

“The Greatest” did not simply earn his nickname by being great at boxing. He became boxing’s greatest by repeatedly putting not just his career but his very identity on the line for political principle. Seeing how our great athletes tow the line of power today, one would urge them to remember Ali. He proved long ago that speaking truth to power is uncomfortable, but that cannot be a reason to man the fence.

Becoming Ali

Born Cassius Clay in 1942, he first fought Sonny Liston for the World Heavyweight Championship at the age of 22 in 1964. The odds, according to the press, were an overwhelming 7-1 in Liston’s favour. So when Liston lost after the sixth round via a technical knockout, some of the things Clay shouted to the ringside press included, “I am the prettiest thing that ever lived!” and, most famously, “I shook up the world! I shook up the world! I shook up the world!”

He proceeded to rattle the world further when he changed his name to Cassius X the next morning, and later to Muhammad Ali after converting and affiliating with the Nation of Islam. He said, “Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it and I don’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name – it means beloved of God, and I insist people use it when people speak to me.”

The press and fellow athletes initially refused to call him by that name. Ali began to be characterised as an arrogant villain who was cementing a disdainful image of himself. Journalists persisted to interrogate his decision to convert and adopt a new name. In 1967, when opponent Ernie Terrell insisted on calling him Cassius, Ali fought what is considered his most sadistic fight, picking away at Terrell like a child torturing an insect, deliberately not knocking him out, all the while shouting, “What’s my name?”

Ali renounced Christianity and his own name because he beleived it was an inheritance of slavery, and embraced Islam for freedom and determination. Today, inseparable from his identity as boxing’s undisputed favourite is Ali’s relentless pursuit of Islam as a declaration of black pride, peace, and his rooted stance against forceful integration. Initially a follower of the Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, Ali declared himself a devout Sunni upon the latter’s death in 1975, and remained so until the end of his life.

In today’s India, we would do well to remember that Ali was a Quran-abiding, namaz-offering Muslim whose Islam did not just “represent” or “stand for” civil rights, but was constituted by the very founding principles of democracy and freedom. As Terrell learned the hard way, every punch thrown in the ring was part of Ali’s battle outside the ring: to fight an inheritance of slavery, determine himself the way he wanted, and practice the religion of his choice. In his own words, “I’m not a Christian anymore. I know where I’m going and I know the truth and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.”

Refusing to fight in Vietnam

Hold on to your helmets, dear Indian cricketers, there is yet more to come. In April 1967, when he refused to join the US Army for the Vietnam war, Ali was convicted for draft evasion.

“My conscience won’t let me shoot my brother or some darker people,” he said, stirring controversy anew. “And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger.” In his official statement, Ali even said he would be untrue to Islam if he accepted the draft.

Two months later, in June 1967, Ali faced the rewards of a fight for racial justice in America: a five-year prison sentence, a $10,000 fine, and a three-year ban from boxing in the prime of his youth. Ali stayed out of jail as the case went to the Supreme Court, which overturned his conviction in 1971. He was broke and did not compete from ages 25 to 29. His legendary boxing coach Angelo Dundee once said Ali was “robbed of his best years”.

During his three-year exile from boxing, supported by the Nation of Islam, Ali toured US college campuses and spoke about Islam and his decision to object to the war. Ali began as a poor orator, but as he went from one campus to the next, and encountered more people to argue with, he mastered the pithy retort that became a weapon he favoured second only to his fists.

By the time his boxing licence was reinstated in 1970, and dead bodies from the Vietnam war piled up, he had amassed sympathy and everyone but Ali’s opinion on the war had changed. He returned to the ring in October that year and knocked out Jerry Quarry in the third round. Ali spent the rest of the 1970s making history with some of the most legendary fights in boxing, and became perhaps the most loved athlete of an era.

Setting a precedent

Ali’s career as a boxer was inseparable from his political positions on race, religion, and war. He was a loudmouth, trash-talking, unapologetic believer in his political principles, who didn’t stand up for the powerless as much as he knocked the mouth guards clean out of the powerful. When he spoke for what he believed in he was hated for his arrogance. Today, after his fight is over, he is loved because the truth won.

Being a great boxer with an exceptional career, Ali could have let power remain unquestioned, put nothing on the line for his beliefs, and ignore America’s failures. He did the exact opposite, and it only made him more of a patriot. A more level-headed person might say it is wrong to make a hero of a man. But given India’s coy athletes today, it’s important to remind them that such a man existed. The fact is that Ali chose to suffer when the truth was threatened, and that set a precedent for sportspersons in America.

In 2013, the New York Times columnist William C Rhoden reflected on what Ali’s career meant to him. He wrote, “Ali's actions changed my standard of what constituted an athlete's greatness. Possessing a killer jump shot or the ability to stop on a dime was no longer enough. What were you doing for the liberation of your people? What were you doing to help your country live up to the covenant of its founding principles?”

Unfortunately, India’s greatest athletes are proving that they cannot answer these questions. Today, Indian athletes must do far more than tweet. Celebrities in India need to set a new precedent. They must be reminded that athletes such as Ali lived their lives in critique of their nations and the power elite. But that is exactly what made Ali a fearless American who could aggressively argue this truth: “I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me — black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own. Get used to me.”

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