I’m a sports fan. Not a rabid sports fan, mind you; I don’t paint myself before attending a game, I don’t tailgate, I don’t go to the local sports bar, I don’t even watch that many games at home. Especially if it involves a team I have an emotional investment in.
I wasn’t always that way; the turning point was the 2011 World Series, when my Texas Rangers broke my heart into millions of little pieces in Game 6. We had that game won, we had that damn series won, and we let it slip away. Twice. The St. Louis Cardinals were down to their last strike twice, and we didn’t close the deal. Ever since, I find it just too stressful to watch one of my teams play. The only time I can watch a sporting event in a relaxed state is when I really don’t give a rat’s youknowwhat who wins.
Besides, I find watching sports these days a lot less pleasant then I used to. For starters, I have given up watching football, on any level. I just can’t watch these huge, strong, fast young men have collision after collision after collision, knowing full well what they are doing to themselves and each other, physically. Yeah, I know it’s what they signed up for, and yeah, I know not all of them end up physically and/or mentally disabled, perhaps even suicidal.
But, with what we know now about CTE, and concussions and head trauma, I just can’t help but wince every time these guys crash into other at full speed. I’ll just skip it, thank you.
Then, there’s all the headlines about players who cheat, lie, steal, fail multiple drug tests, beat women, rape and murder. About coaches who look the other way, as long as these disgraceful excuses for human beings help win games, because that’s what matters, right?
Yes, I’m well aware, there are plenty of players, coaches, owners etc. who are solid citizens, who do things the right way, and who stand as worthy role models to all who revere them. Unfortunately, they’re just usually too boring to be written about.
Which finally brings me to the subject of this post. One notable exception to that rule left us last week. He was an honorable human being, but he sure wasn’t boring.
Muhammad Ali (nee Cassius Clay), of Louisville, Kentucky was, to use a popular term, a polarizing figure in sports. No; in society, actually.
His truculent braggadocio, as longtime foil Howard Cosell might have put it, was endlessly entertaining to watch. He was a poet who elevated boxing to performance art, and won the World Heavyweight Championship three times in the process. His fights were legendary, from the knockout of Sonny Liston to the epic battles with Joe Frazier to the astonishing conquest of George Foreman. Even someone like me, who never really cared for boxing, can’t help but appreciate what Ali accomplished in the ring.
But, more than Ali, the fighter, it’s Ali, the man that is the reason for the worldwide outpouring of accolades and love we have witnessed these last few days. He was a man who unashamedly, unwaveringly stood up for what he believed in, regardless of the consequences. He was a proud black man and a proud Muslim which, in the 1960’s, many Americans found threatening. (Still do, apparently.) He refused to be drafted by the Army and go to Vietnam to fight in a war he found antithetical to his religious beliefs. He never backed down, even though it cost him arguably the prime years of his boxing career, and nearly landed him in prison.
In his later years, he was a tireless advocate for peace among all races and religions. I remember him speaking out after 9/11, denouncing the terrorist actions and explaining that they did not represent true Muslim ideals and values. He personally visited Saddam Hussein in 1990, prior to America’s declaration of war against Iraq for the invasion of Kuwait, and secured the release of 15 American hostages. He was a true humanitarian who was a force for positive change in the world. We all can, and should, aspire to that.
R.I.P., Muhammad. You told us you were The Greatest, and darned if you weren’t absolutely right.