He was “pretty,” as he often said, but his last years were not pretty. On Saturday night Muhammed Ali died, ending his thirty year battle with Parkinson’s Disease. Early on, Ali’s life was about his superiority in the ring and the arrogant, provocative, rhyming couplets he conjured to celebrate it. After he stopped fighting, his life was about character, integrity, and a different kind of courage. In the prime of life he suffered for his principles but stood by them. He was stripped of his title and barred from boxing. He lost three professional years for his opposition to the Vietnam war. He later dedicated himself to making the world a better place for all people.
But, before there was a Muhammed Ali there were other inspirational athletes who shared their courage and truth with us – Jesse Owens, Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson, Althea Gibson, and Arthur Ashe were all exceptional, inspirational athletes who happened to be people of color. A recent film about Jesse Owens and the 1936 Olympics reminds us of an earlier time when courage and conviction were tested in a bona fide battle between good and evil. Race celebrates Owens’ 4 gold medals at the Berlin Games and shows how his performances undercut Hitler’s plan to use the Games to validate his theory of a white master race.
It’s sometimes difficult for us to accept America’s history of slavery and racism while we celebrate triumphs like Jesse Owens’ remarkable performance at the ’36 Games. Race does a credible job of showing the discrimination and indignities Owens suffered as he prepared for the Olympics and following his triumphant return to New York. In one touching scene he and his wife are prevented from entering the Plaza Hotel through the front door and directed to the service entrance in spite of the fact that the event they were attending was being held to honor him and celebrate his victories.
Racism is a snake pit for white people to write or talk about. If we criticize “people of color” (an interesting euphemism) we are dismissed as racists or told we can’t possibly understand due to our white privilege. We can’t use the language, dialect and epithets that black people use to describe their peers, and if we charge a black person with racism the charge is likely to be characterized as racist.
As an ardent tennis player and fan, my feelings about Serena Williams are especially complicated by this double standard. I’m amazed at her overwhelming superiority and competitiveness on the tennis court but disgusted by her petulant, angry, unapologetic, poor loser sulks and her insincere graciousness in victory. She pouts, slams racquets, insults officials, threatens linesmen, and accuses stadium crowds and the media of racism. I wish she would just take her trophies and fade into the background. Maybe with time my feelings will change or she will. Throughout her career she has been her father Richard’s child. His racist remarks are often worse than her bad court behavior. The provenance of her disturbing behavior is not important. It’s enough that she continues to behave badly, and it pisses me off when comments like mine are characterized as racist. I said the same things about John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. Bad manners and ugly behavior are the same regardless of skin color.
In this exchange with a lineswoman Serena shakes her racquet threateningly and says, “I swear to God I’ll take this fucking ball and stuff it down your fucking throat.”
I always hope that Serena will turn the corner and become an ambassador for the sport much as McEnroe and Connors have done. Maybe once those roiling competitive juices stop fueling the drive for Grand Slam victory #22, she will chill out. She has been a remarkably successful champion. I’d be happy to eat my words and see her transformed into a statesmanlike ex-champion like Arthur Ashe.
In our pursuit of excellence we often look to successful athletes for role models, but we are really talking about leadership, integrity and courage whether it’s on the field, in the boardroom, or in the White House. In the current Presidential election cycle it is worth remembering that for every Donald Trump there is a Barack Obama just as there is a Ray Rice for every Muhammad Ali. It’s incumbent on us to choose our role models wisely. I want Serena to come down on the side of Ali, Owens, and Arthur Ashe. Maybe Arthur’s formula can provide the guidance she needs while, at the same time, it inspires all of us to be the best we can be: