Today’s brand-focused, business-like athletes generally choose to make ornamental political statements with T-shirts, playing accessories and social media posts, and not to put their careers on the line with their activism.
Simply put, there’s too much money at stake in today’s modern sports culture. Choosing to sacrifice nearly four years of one’s career seems unthinkable, no matter the cause. The peak time for professional athletic performance is between 25 and 27 years old, and that’s when star athletes receive their largest contracts. Ali was sidelined for that period of his life.
Late civil rights movement leader Stokely Carmichael perhaps put it best, as quoted in Zirin’s book:
Of all the people who opposed the war in Vietnam, I think that Muhammad Ali risked the most. Lots of people refused to go. Some went to jail. But no one risk as much from their decision not to go to war in Vietnam as much as Muhammad Ali. And his real greatness can be seen in the fact that, despite all that was done to him, he became even greater and more humane.
His humanity — that’s where Ali’s true greatness lies. Sports fans can say we were robbed of Ali’s true prime, but society gained something much better: a leading voice against the class and race issues that intertwined with one of the deadliest foreign wars in U.S. history.