Skip to main content

Naila Keleta-Mae is a professor at the University of Waterloo where she researches race, gender, theatre and performance.

The death of boxer and activist Muhammad Ali could mark the official end of the era of the black athlete as an outspoken champion of black people's fight for equality in the face of white domination. It is a void that, unfortunately, no athlete of our day has showed any serious interest in filling.

Early in his career Mr. Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, was pegged as a heavyweight to watch. His style of boxing was beautiful and unusual –especially for his weight class. Light on his feet with fists down by his side; he taunted his opponents. He was often just out of reach when they tried to punch him. Over the course of his 21-year professional career, Ali won 56 of his 61 fights, was crowned World Heavyweight Champion three times and won a light-heavyweight Olympic gold medal.

But that's just what he did inside the ring.

Outside of the ring, Mr. Ali was a symbol of black power. Not only was he a cocky and charismatic man in the public eye, but he was also a vocal, politically-engaged athlete in the 1960s when the fight for black rights and freedoms was violently unfolding in the United States of America.

In 2012, NBA player LeBron James posted a picture of him and his Miami Heat teammates wearing hoodies pulled over their heads referencing the death of an unarmed 17-year-old black youth named Trayvon Martin. In 2014, players from the Cleveland Cavaliers and Brooklyn Nets wore T-shirts that said "I Can't Breathe" referencing the last words of Eric Garner, an unarmed 43-year-old black man who died during an arrest.

These acts, and others, demonstrated political awareness and generated some public conversation.

But none of today's athletes who dominate their sport the way Mr. Ali did have taken the degree of principled professional and personal risks that he did.

In the 1960s he converted to Islam, changed his name to Muhammad Ali and cited religious grounds as his reason for resisting being drafted to serve in the Vietnam War. When asked about his refusal he said: "My conscience won't let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor, hungry people in the mud for big, powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn't put no dogs on me, they didn't rob me of my nationality, rape or kill my mother and father …How can I shoot them poor people?"

Mr. Ali's public, unapologetic and unpopular stance on the Vietnam War and how it related to black people in the United States redefined the ways that world-renown athletes could use their public platform for political ends.

Because of his draft evasion, he was arrested, stripped of his passport, stripped of his World Heavyweight Champion title and suspended from boxing in the United States. More than three years passed before the legal proceedings against him ended when his conviction was overturned. But, during that suspension, colleges across the United States invited Ali to speak about his political views. In an unlikely turn of events, Mr. Ali's suspension allowed him to develop his skills as a public intellectual who was concerned, primarily, with the rights and freedoms of black people. By the time Ali returned to the ring, he had become a symbol of the political stances that successful black athletes could take – even in the face of very real professional and personal costs.

Mr. Ali was an athlete before endorsement deals and financial worth gripped the profession. And even though many of today's athletes pour some of their money and resources into charitable foundations – no one is out front speaking on the record about the racial violence and racial inequality that continues to plague the United States.

Now, to be clear, he was a flawed figure. Though not often reported, he is understood to have had a long history of adultery that affected some, if not all, of his four wives. He also cruelly put on public display the underbelly of the deeply ingrained skin politics that occupy some black thought. This was no more evident than in the verbal line of attack he unleashed on his three-time opponent, Joe Frazier.

Throughout his career, Mr. Ali, a light-skinned black man, always talked about how "pretty" he was. Mr. Frazier was a dark-skinned black man and Mr. Ali ruthlessly used that fact to describe Mr. Frazier as a "gorilla" and call him "ugly." For the many people worldwide whose ancestors were subjected to European imperialism and colonization, the destructive notion continues to exist that European features are always better: be they light skin, straight noses, or straight hair. Mr. Ali's legacy is blemished by the historical hurt that his comments about Mr. Frazier touched upon and the likely effect of his adultery on his family and community.

Sometimes we just want heroes. Instead, we often end up with people­. Flawed, extraordinary people. Muhammad Ali was certainly one of those.

It remains to be seen whether or not his death will inspire famous athletes to combine their athletic brilliance with an unwavering public commitment to racial justice and equality. In so doing, they would take up the parts of Ali's life that made him extraordinary. I can't help but hope that some of today's athletes will.