Can Sports and Politics work well together? Athletics is a very important part of life. The benefits of exercise for the body and mind are quite conclusive, and many of us in our pursuits for health seek out sports as one avenue of achieving this goal. Even for those who might not practice physical exercise, there is a vast array of entertainment built up around the performance of professional athletics. Multi-billion dollar institutions have been created around such activities as basketball, football, soccer, hockey, and many others. The people who become our professional athletes have very prominent positions in the media and become, to many, models for success and the pursuit of a personal best.
Muhammad Ali is a perfect example of this. Of course the feats which he accomplished throughout his career as a boxer are indisputable, but as a public figure he transcended the generally accepted position of an athlete in society. Unfortunately, big corporate contracts and the sports media actually discourage athletes from speaking or acting politically. There is of course an argument to be made about whether it is right or wrong for athletes, who have a captive audience to speak to, should express political stances or opinions. In the last few years in the US this has been especially important, with such movements as Black Lives Matter and other social justice groups who recognize the underlying problems of systemic racism in the US. Ali was a great model for this kind of action. Not only was he outspoken about his conversion to Islam, but he spoke out against the Vietnam War, and decided that he would not go to war or support it in any way. This was extremely controversial at the time, creating a massive negative feedback, where he was stripped of his titles, and not allowed to box for several years. Resisting the draft was illegal at the time and he could have been fined and put in jail for up to 5 years. Because of his fame and position in society he was able to remain free, and because of the change of public opinion he never saw jail time.
This in some sense is the most important reason for why athletes who are politically minded against violence and oppression should be allowed to speak out and act, even encouraged. They are not easily quieted and put out of sight. They must be heard and are heard by tens of thousands and even more and this can bring attention to much needed political situations such as racism. Muhammad Ali missed out on some of his peak physical years because of his political action, but this did not stop him from becoming renowned and revered as the best heavy- weight boxer of his time. Not only did he accomplish great things as an athlete, but he inspired many others during the war to question the conscription and the reasons for going to Vietnam. Eventually as the rest of the population began to become disillusioned with the war, he was asked to come and speak at universities and around the country, becoming a cultural icon for resisting.
Fear of losing contracts, endorsements, game time, any other such penalties is what often keeps contemporary players quiet, but there are those who disregard this and do what they believe is right. Watching or playing sports is not a benign activity, it is connected to the social fabric of a country, to the gains of corporate and media power and profits, and brings a variety of people together in order to enjoy each others company while celebrating the capacity for physical human achievement. It will only be more rewarding for fans to know that the athletes they cheer for are real people, who have thoughts and concerns, and want to speak freely without fear of repercussions. This could make the sports world more complex, but what we gain is invaluable. Many other athletes throughout the 20th and 21 st century have followed Muhammad Ali’s example, not only athletes, but even the fans who are the ones supporting the whole sports world in the first place. Together, if we encourage the will towards understanding and peace in each other, the world can be a better place.
Author: Jonathan M. Bessette