Thursday, May 7, 2009

"I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong"

Building on the theme of glaring omissions from the “Newseum Top 100 Stories of the Century”, this article will focus on the legacy of boxing great Muhammad Ali. I am focusing on two sports stories based on the outrageous assertion by Newseum that Babe Ruth’s 60th homerun was the only sports story worthy of being mentioned in the top 100 of all-time. There are about ten sports stories that I consider far more impactful in terms of relevance to society and actual influence on people. Certainly Muhammad Ali is right up there with the most memorable and unique stories of the 20th century. As Robert Lipsyte of the New York Times wrote in 1965, “Ali, the most gifted fighter of his time, is up there with The Beatles as a world attraction.”

The man who called himself “The Greatest” and described his boxing style poetically, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”, was unquestionably one of the strongest personalities in sports history. The word confidence does not do Ali justice, but neither does arrogance, really. Make no mistake; he was both confident and arrogant. Yet these characteristics, along with overwhelming talent and phenomenal hand and foot speed in the ring, made Muhammad Ali one of the most widely recognized athletes in the world. He often predicted the round he would knock out his opponent. His incredible performances in boxing alone would deem him worthy of inclusion as a top news story in my eyes, but it was his actions outside of the ring that made him immortal.

Born Cassius Clay, which he changed to a Muslim name in 1964 when he became a member of the Nation of Islam, Ali was growing interested and concerned about race and politics. As he blossomed into a national celebrity, Ali was realizing that he had an opportunity not afforded to most folks – he had a platform to speak out on social issues. He came to a realization that he had to use boxing more than it used him. His impact on the world could transcend his performances in the ring, which he became well aware of even at a young age. “I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be who I want,” said Ali at age 22. “The heavyweight championship is nothing. It only lasts for a little while, so I must prepare myself for the hereafter.”

As Robert Lipsyte wrote in the New York Times, “Ali will probably remain, for a long time, the most controversial and complex figure in modern American sports history.” Perhaps his most memorable and audacious action was his decision to refuse induction into the United States Army during the Vietnam War. He considered himself a conscientious objector and . As the New York Times headline read on March 17, 1967, “Clay Prefers Jail to Army. Champion Risking Prison and Fine.” When questioned why he refused to serve, he famously remarked “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong…they never called me nigger.” The statement sent shockwaves around the world. Never one to hesitate to elaborate, Ali explained exactly why he was refusing to serve. “You want me to do what the white man says and go fight a war against some people I don’t know nothing about-get some freedom for some other people when my own people can’t get theirs? We’re over there so that the people of South Vietnam can be free. But I’m here in America and I’m being punished for upholding my beliefs.”

For an athlete of his stature to take this bold of a stance, questioning authority and rebelling against the system, was an extremely risky thing for Ali to do. Everything that he had worked so hard to accomplish throughout his life could be stripped of him; and indeed was. When he refused three times to step forward when his name was called for induction into the Army, he was stripped of his boxing license and his title as heavyweight champion of the world. He was later sentenced to five years in prison for draft evasion, but appealed the decision and never actually served time in jail. Still, the losses that Ali suffered as a result for standing up for his beliefs were massive. He lost millions due to being out of work for years while his boxing license was revoked. He lectured at college campuses all over the country during this time, to educate and also help him survive; a humbling experience for a man who was used to wealth and luxury. This only serves to show the true character of Muhammad Ali. He was a real revolutionary. His legacy continues to inspire millions.

(by Sean Singer)


The Champion Looks Down at His Title
New York Times (1857-Current file); Mar 24, 1964; ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2005)
pg. 41

Clay Prefers Jail to Army
New York Times (1857-Current file); Mar 17, 1967; ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2005)
pg. 50
I'm Free to Be Who I Want'
New York Times (1857-Current file); May 28, 1967; ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2005)
pg. SM15


  1. I agree with your assessment of the Muhammad Ali story being perhaps the most significant sports story of the 20th century. Babe Ruth's accomplishment, perhaps because of our modern perspective towards home runs in connection with steroids, seems to have little or no significance today. Ali, on the other hand, is still very relevant. The extended quotes you used in your entry gives a good idea that Ali gave more to his generation than boxing victories. A major sports star that valued personal ethics over corporate endorsements should be remembered so there might be a chance another professional athlete might one day follow in his or her footsteps.

    1. Real baseball fans know that Babe Ruth's 60 home runs, without steroids and with excessive beer and hotdogs, in a relatively dead-ball era, are far more meaningful today than ever.

  2. Yes, Muhammad Ali is a very complex figure indeed. I always found it interesting that he is known for how much a phenomenal boxer he was, but also for a social activist. I mean, his name alone speaks bounds about his convictions. A lot of other athletes on the same, I guess, physical level can't say that they would do the same thing, or at least it has not been shown. This is not to say that they don't exist, it's just that I think Ali is bounds beyond that of the average athletic legend, for more than one reason.

  3. Great and unique topic to focus on. The intersectionality of sports, politics, and race was almost never as blatant as can be seen in Ali's life. You provided context and presented information in a clear manner. However, you didn't mention how the coverage of Ali reflects the journalism profession at the time. In the book required for class, "Discovering the News," there is a great section starting on page 176 called "The Rise of a Critical Culture" which puts into perspective how the political climate of the time directly affected journalists.