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Ali Was A True Pioneer – For Better And Worse

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, June 8 2016
Muhammed Ali didn't just transform boxing. He transformed the culture of sports and sportsmanship.

Muhammed Ali didn’t just transform boxing. He transformed the culture of sports and sportsmanship.

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

No, you have not mistakenly logged in to BoxinToday.com. While this is an opinion piece about Muhammad Ali, it deals with the legacy of a boxer who was so much more than a boxer. And it deals with so much more than boxing. By extension, it includes racing.

bugopinionThe legacy of Ali, who passed away last week at the age of 74 after many years of deteriorating health, casts it seine netting over the sociology and philosophy of just about every significant aspect of American culture.

His words and deeds and beliefs had profound effects on everything from politics to, absolutely of course, sports.

As you may have noticed, Ali’s passing rang the dinner bell  for an American media who’s mouth waters like Victoria Falls at the opportunity to feast on the juiciest, richest cuts of culture tenderloin. Editors and producers at outlets from coast to coast, border to border, clouds to bedrock have picked up the ball and ran with it like a squirrel with an acorn across a busy boulevard.

And why not? Muhammad Ali touched a lot of very sensitive nerves over the last six decades. People either love him or hate him for his takes on the most searing of hot-botton issues: war, religion, politics, racial relations, free speech.

Having grown up with the Ali phenomenon, I read with fascination the spectrum of takes on the man and his actions over the weekend. Most tended to, as one should expect in wake of the death of an important person, accent the positive. Some, as one should expect given the sources, accented the negative.

The most journalistically thorough, carbuncles-and-all job I saw came courtesy of long-time, was-actually-there former New York Times journalist Robert Lipsyte which ran on ESPN.com. I never met nor covered Ali, but I did have the pleasure/honor of spending a bit of time with Lipsyte during his professional forays onto the racing beat and found him to be as upright and professional as the biz has ever produced.

Great piece, Robert.

Me? For the most part, I liked and respected Ali from the beginning. I still remember listening to Clay-Liston 1 as my factory-worker sports-fan father, brother and I sat on a bunkbed in front of a small radio in a cramped bedroom of our house in a blue collar neighborhood in the auto-making town of Kenosha, Wis.

Dad was stunned, I was delighted when Clay strutted off with that history-making victory. Massive underdog Clay’s antics seemed so fresh to a 12-year-old who was just beginning to chart a moral course in life.

I stayed with Ali through the rest of his boxing and crossover career: I stayed with him during milestone moments I didn’t truly understand – like his conversion to Islam; I stayed with him during milestone moments I understood extremely well – like his anti war politics.

But there has been one aspect of the Ali legacy which I found increasingly distressing.

Muhammad Ali fired the first shots in athletes’ war on sportsmanship. Not just in boxing, but in all sports.

See, once there was a time when winning was neither the most important thing nor the only thing. Yes, it was absolutely the preferred thing, but there was also praise-worthy dignity involved in trying like crazy but coming up second slower, a basket short or a field goal missed to a person or team which might have been bigger, stronger and faster.

At one time, a boxer could leave the ring bloodied and beaten but proud of the fight and the outcome; a defensive back could head to the locker room satisfied if not delighted that the game-winning pass that sailed over his finger tips  was more the result of a perfect pass and perfect route than his failure to intercede in that perfection; a basketball player could pick himself up off the varnished hardwood or broken concrete after being dunked over and know that he did what he could in an impossible situation.

More importantly: For athletic victors, once there was time when hands were extended to defeated foes; when linebackers would help a crumpled quarterback to their feet; that finishing second in a competition did not brand you as the “first loser” but as a person or team that happened to come up just short against a slightly better opponent that particular day.

A high school varsity wrestling coach once pulled me aside and whispered these words to me after I had pinned some dude on some mat in some noisy gymnasium and came up acting more than just a bit proud of myself: Humility in victory, honor in defeat.

It was the pledge of allegiance to that wonderful concept of sportsmanship and the cultural maturity for which is stood. It was not about accepting a trophy for participation. It was about knowing that only one person can stand on the top step of the podium and that that person isn’t ever going to be the same person after every competition.

Then there was Ali.

Before the fights; insults and bulling.

During the fights; humiliating the opponent became pro forma after beating him. There was the site of him standing over fallen opponents with one hand pointing into the face of the vanquished and the other thumping the victor’s chest.

After the fights; self adulation, belittling assaults aimed at stripping the fallen – no matter how valiant – of remaining dignity, and more self adulation.

The Olympic motto of’ “Citius, Altius, Fortius”, by which many of us were expected to conduct our athletic lives as youngsters in the ’50s and ’60s, was altered to “In Your Face, Loser Chump”.

And the world loved it.

Never mind that much of it was just good business; Just a way to dig deeper into the ticket-buying, gear purchasing, Nielsen-molding public’s bill folds. Never mind that adherents explained it away as getting into the opponent’s head.

Kids on playgrounds, in gyms, on soccer pitches everywhere began going for grill. The new morality of sportsmanship ahs trickled down from high to low. Young athletes learn how to taunt before they learn how to shoot free throws. They begin honing the craft of self aggrandizement before they even know there is a craft of moving the runner along.

Former NBA star Charles Barkley, I believe, is credited with saying his job was not to be a role model for anybody; that parents should be role models and that those parents should be setting the moral tone for their kids.

In terms of rhetoric, it’s a terrific statement. In terms of reality, it demonstrates ignorance. Parents, no matter how hard they try, are not the sole purveyors of offspring conduct for the simple reason that they don’t wield the power that comes with dating Beyonce or having a fat sneaker deal.

Today, in some quarters of the youth culture, it’s cooler to respect the dude who made it rain cash at 3 a.m. in a strip club than the parent who comes home from work with news of a 10-percent salary bump and a favorable yearly review.

Some people wince when informed I am no longer a sports fan. If they ask why, I tell them: as person who has been a sports journalist for 37 years, I have seen the way tripe is formed into sausage.

I do still have a couple of teams I follow – those of my college alma mater, mostly.

Then there are a couple of sports that I follow because I can sort of, kind of still relate to the athletes who play those sports and those sports’ intramural culture.

The first is the NHL. It’s the only pro sport out there where the players literally knock each other’s teeth out on the ice and then form lines to shake hands and pat the backs at the same players afterward. Win, lose, overtime, regular season, playoffs.

Off the ice, you don’t hear much about them – which in the era TMZ, is a good thing. (BTW: If I have a hero in sports, it’s Canadiens player P.K. Subban not because of his skating or shooting but because he cut a check for $10 million to Montreal Children’s Hospital and then showed up in feety pajamas to read and interact with desperately ill young victims of disease.)

The other enduring sport is auto racing. The athletes there run opponents into walls, they throw helmets at others’ cars, they put each other in awkward headlocks in the post-race pits and garages, they call each other idiots and morons. They do not gyrate their hips over injured or merely beaten foes. Their crews do not stand in front of an opponent’s pit box and grab their crotches.

The guess here is that –Ali or no Ali – sportsmanship would have died a natural death in a world where greed trumps compassion, where moral compasses are now used as ornimental paper weights on the desks of hedge fund managers.

And, after reading Lipsyte, the guess here is that Ali was neigther a hero nor the devil but just a human being who by virtue of being such, was both at the same time. (Aren’t we all – yes, my hand is raised here.)

But even as Ali’s speed and power and skill as a boxer thrilled, as personal pride grew as he evolved from man to myth, as sadness set in as old age and illness turned the toughest of man of our time into a quivering mortal, that darn sportsmanship thing sat festering in a dark and secluded section of at least one former sports fan’s personal nerve center.

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, June 8 2016
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