Muhammad Ali died this past June, and the timing of that final act of a remarkable life seemed pre-ordained, as if to make one last point.
It had been exactly 20 years since the most significant sports figure of the 20th Century last held centre stage, his surprise appearance in Atlanta to light the Olympic cauldron with trembling hands.
The sight of the great fighter, the great rebel, still more villain than hero to some, laying bare his infirmity and shocking the world a final time, was widely interpreted as a moment of reconciliation. Legend had it that he chucked the gold medal he had won in Rome in 1960 into the Ohio River because of the pervasive racism of his homeland. Now here he was in the capital of the New South, a former member of the Nation of Islam who had refused the draft, for many years a racial separatist at odds with the civil rights movement, being universally celebrated and—in that instant at least—all but universally loved.
The final two decades of Ali’s life, years of declining health, of decreasing visibility, of pathos and sentimentalizing and sanitizing and commercial exploitation, had rendered the real man all but invisible by the end, a kind of benign, saintly hologram.
In death, though, he moved once more to the centre of the storm. Ali’s acts of courage and conviction in the 1960’s were acknowledged against a backdrop that seemed to echo those tumultuous times.
The man about to be confirmed as the presidential candidate of one of America’s two foundational political parties was in the midst of a campaign built on race-baiting, the promise of wall-building and the threat to ban Muslim immigration to the United States. Hopes evaporated that the fractures that had riven the country since its beginnings had been bridged by the election of Barack Obama—replaced by the mainstreaming of “white nationalists” and the need to remind the world that black lives matter. (It’s no shock that many of us were transfixed in 2016 re-living the O.J. Simpson trial in both dramatic and documentary form. The notion of an unbridgeable black/white divide seemed all too of the moment.)
By contrast, in Louisville in the days leading up to Ali’s funeral, a spirit of inclusion prevailed that pushed against the hateful grain. Black and white, Muslim and Christian, gathered in celebration of a remarkable life. An Islamic prayer service was broadcast live across the country and women wearing hijabs walked the downtown streets without drawing a second glance. A black man who grew up in segregation, who said no to his government, who risked jail rather than fighting in a foreign war, was acknowledged for at least a few days as a universal hero in a divided, angry, fearful nation.
It seemed for a few fleeting moments that our better selves might yet prevail, despite all evidence to the contrary.
Sports were part of that—Ali’s ascension to heavyweight boxing champion of the world when that title was still the greatest individual honour in sport gave him his global pedestal—but the truth is that, most of the time, sports don’t matter much. They’re useful for the parables they provide, examples of how lives might be lived and battles might be fought. The people who become great athletes (by virtue of the same kind of hard work and dedication it takes to succeed in any area of life, though almost invariably combined with winning the genetic lottery) can occasionally do remarkable things in other arenas. It’s certainly possible to build a sound value system around the principles of playing by the rules, or around the loftier goals of the Olympic movement. And no doubt sport packs an emotional punch. If you weren’t thrilled by the tale of Canada’s teen Olympic hero, Penny Oleksiak, or admiring of Sidney Crosby’s rise back from a mid-career trough to again be acknowledged the greatest hockey player in the world, or heart-warmed as the Ottawa Redblacks brought a championship to a city that’s been as snake-bitten as any—well, you must not have a pulse.
Mostly, though, sport is purely spectacle, purely diversion, purely entertainment, that temporarily blots out the complications of the real world. It gives us winners and losers and triumphs and failures and a satisfying conclusion and then on to the next game, the next season.
But in 2016, as was the case a half-century before when Ali was being stripped of his heavyweight championship, sport was also a vehicle and a platform for some larger lessons, not all of them comforting.
Begin with the National Football League, the most successful enterprise of its ilk in North America, which is in the midst of something akin to a moral crisis. The league and its commissioner have been unable to deal responsibly or compassionately with the reality of brain injuries to players and their consequences, fearful of the liability that would be implied. The NFL has also stumbled on the issue of domestic violence among its players.
When commissioner Roger Goodell did finally take a stand about something of his own volition, it was over a matter that seemed trivial by comparison—the slight under-inflation of footballs, by accident or (as the league concluded) by design, to aid a player who may well be the greatest quarterback of all time, Tom Brady. That’s where Goodell decided to throw the book, suspending Brady for the first quarter of the 2016 season, a cloud that will hang over the league until the New England Patriots win or don’t win the Super Bowl in early 2017.
Deflategate was a diverting gong show, but another NFL story truly made waves. During a pre-season game featuring his San Francisco 49ers, quarterback Colin Kaepernick declined to stand for the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He didn’t announce his protest in advance, and in fact it took a while before anyone noticed and the penny dropped. When asked afterwards, he explained his decision: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour,” Kaepernick said. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
The comparisons to Ali—and to Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised gloved fists in the black power salute on the Olympic medal podium in Mexico City in 1968—were immediate. So was the blowback, not just from the familiar my-country-right-or-wrong brigade, but also from those who wanted to point out that Kaepernick was no Ali, that his liberty wasn’t at stake, that he wasn’t even a starter at this stage of his career, and so what was he really putting on the line? Kaepernick stood his ground, and a scattering of teammates and other professional athletes joined him. He drew support from war veterans, who reminded everyone that among the values for which they had fought was the right to dissent. If Kaepernick didn’t change the world, he at least expanded the conversation, taking it to places where it wasn’t happening before, including what they used to call the sports pages.
And the biggest story of the year? It was one that didn’t have impact it might have because the word “doping” doesn’t have the shock value that it did back when we were making a ritual sacrifice of Ben Johnson in 1988.
In a report prepared for the World Anti-Doping Agency and issued in early December, Canadian law professor Richard McLaren concluded that Russian athletes had engaged in massive state-sponsored cheating dating back at least to 2011 and including both the London Olympics in 2012 and the Sochi Games in 2014. But that timeframe is almost certainly just the tip of the iceberg. “It is impossible to know just how deep and how far back this conspiracy goes,” McLaren said. “For years, international sports competitions have unknowingly been hijacked by the Russians. Coaches and athletes have been playing on an uneven field. Sports fans and spectators have been deceived.”
Which means that Russia has been operating like the old East Germany, except that it has been brazenly doing so in an era when testing procedures are as stringent as they have ever been. It is both a rogue nation (though that would suggest it is alone, which it probably isn’t) and a global sports power. To throw Russia out of world sport, including the Olympic Games, and to revoke the 2018 FIFA World Cup would have enormous long-term consequences—and to not throw Russia out or not revoke the World Cup would seem an abandonment of fundamental values. Let the handwringing begin.
Of course the issue could be handled the way it has been handled in baseball, where, as the year concluded, the writers once again filed their ballots for the Hall of Fame and once again passed judgment on players from that sport’s “steroid era”—including arguably the greatest starting pitcher and position player in the history of the game.
But the commissioner who oversaw that chapter in baseball history, who was either oblivious or complicit (there’s no third option)? Bud Selig will be called to the Hall next summer, found worthy by a different set of voters, who apparently apply very different criteria.
Which is another lesson that might be learned about life from sport: It isn’t always fair.
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