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Former NBA player Royce White calls for the prosecution of the officers involved in the killing of George Floyd during a protest outside the Hennepin County Government Center on May 29, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

In 1967, Muhammad Ali received his U.S. draft card. He showed up as scheduled at an army entry station in Houston. When his given name was called – Cassius Clay – he refused to acknowledge it. Then he refused to join the army.

“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs?” he wondered.

Based on the events of recent days, it’s the sort of thing people are still wondering about.

Ali was 25 years old when he created the protest movement in professional sports. It took a while to catch on, largely because Ali’s life was so comprehensively dismantled as a punishment.

He was arrested and sentenced to prison. His belts were stripped and his boxing licences rescinded.

Though a vocal minority supported him, the mainstream still felt comfortable condemning Ali in the most personal terms. He didn’t fight at all during the more than three years it took to have his conviction overturned.

In the end, the U.S. government did not take his freedom, but it robbed him of the best years of his career.

Of all the things Ali managed as a public figure, his most important contribution to sports culture was two-fold. First, he gave his colleagues permission to have unpopular opinions. Second – and this one matters more – he impressed upon them the importance of having smart opinions.

You read back on Ali’s public pronouncements now and they jump off the page like poetry: “If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people, they wouldn’t have to draft me. I’d join tomorrow. But I either have to obey the laws of the land or the laws of Allah. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”

Ali set the standard. For half a century, everyone else has been trying to catch up.

Even 10 years ago, most athletes still would not risk taking a stand on issues such as race or class. When it did happen, the burden fell almost entirely on black athletes. The ones who did speak tended to be veterans and/or superstars. They counted on their celebrity to insulate them from the worst blowback.

So when a 19-time all-star such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wanted to get a few things off his chest about race in America, that was tolerated. But when a mediocre, third-year NBA player such as Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf tried essentially the same thing by refusing to stand for the national anthem, he was run out of the league.

No one talked about who was allowed to do what. It was understood. Once you spoke up on non-sporting matters, you were expected to continue to do so for whatever remained of your career. One imagines this is not exactly a fun job, because so few were willing to do it.

Michael Jordan’s quip that, “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” gave those who didn’t want to be bothered enough cover to “no comment” their way out of trouble.

Social media changed those dynamics.

Today’s athletes are on the internet all day, every day having all sorts of opinions, the majority of them either silly or mercantile.

So when something big happens – say, America’s biggest cities start combusting – it’s difficult to pretend you’ve misplaced your phone or go dark.

It used to be that what you said was weighed against you. Now, your silence implicates you.

This is how you get NHL players such as Blake Wheeler releasing statements about the violence, which is centred in his home state of Minnesota.

“We need to stand with the black community and fundamentally change how the leadership in this country has dealt with racism,” Wheeler wrote in part.

This is something a hockey player may very well have felt before, but would have to think very hard about saying, even very recently. Not because it is a controversial opinion, but because it creates the expectation that you will in future have more thoughtful opinions such as this one.

Just about everyone in sports – and every other milieu – is falling over themselves to have a trenchant take on the George Floyd protests.

Getting this right isn’t rocket science – it’d be a bizarre sort of person who could look at the snuff video that started this and think, “Two sides to every story” – but the volume of response is altering the relationship between sports and power.

Sports has always been a tool of authority. The teams are owned by the top ranks of the aristocracy. The best players are expected to represent their countries in virtual combat with foreign powers. The work force are one-per-centers.

When we talk about the establishment in North America, professional sport is as much its cornerstone as the judiciary.

When a team wins a trophy, the players go to the White House and take pictures, reminding the rest of the country who the real shot callers are.

Now that relationship is imploding. It’s not that athletes no longer like the ruling U.S. government, it’s that they are no longer allowed to like it. What was once seen as patriotic is now seen as toadyism. Everyone’s rushing to get on the right side of history.

Traditionally, the leagues have used suasion – gentle and not so gentle – to moderate their players’ views. Not anymore.

"The protesters’ reactions to these incidents reflect the pain, anger and frustration that so many of us feel,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wrote in a statement.

This is the guy who was in charge when Colin Kaepernick was blacklisted for doing precisely what Goodell is now embracing – protesting police violence. This is a little like Cardinal Richelieu coming out later in life and saying,"I’ve thought it over and I’m switching sides. I’m with the peasantry now.”

Sport is in open defiance of its own ruling class. This is how revolutions start.

One would love to know what Ali would have made of all this. Mostly, I presume he’d be disappointed to learn that 50 years on, America hadn’t changed all that much. But he could at least take some satisfaction in knowing that, in his profession at least, the spark he lit has caught fire.

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