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In Political Activism, Ali Pulled No Punches — And Paid A Heavy Price

Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medalists in the 200-meter run at the 1968 Olympic Games, engage in a victory stand protest against unfair treatment of African-Americans in the United States. Australian Peter Norman is the silver medalist.
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Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medalists in the 200-meter run at the 1968 Olympic Games, engage in a victory stand protest against unfair treatment of African-Americans in the United States. Australian Peter Norman is the silver medalist.

Everywhere you turn in the world of sports, in seemingly every league, in amateur, college and professional ranks, you find athletes carrying the banner of some sort of political protest. But it started with Muhammad Ali.

Today, there's LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and their teammates wearing gray hoodies in support of Trayvon Martin.

The Chicago Bulls' Derrick Rose donning a t-shirt that reads "I CAN'T BREATHE" before another game.

Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe taking a stand in favor of same-sex marriage.

The U.S. Women's Soccer Team –- the reigning World Cup Champions -– threatening to skip the Olympics, filing a wage discrimination suit and demanding equal pay and the same kind of support the U.S. Men's Team receives.

It's football players at Northwestern University trying to start a union and pressing for pay for college athletes beyond the scholarship that covers the cost of their education.

And there are members of the St. Louis Rams making a bold statement in solidarity with protestors in Ferguson, Mo. They took the field before the game with their hands up in the air, miming the "hands up, don't shoot" demonstrators made after the police shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown.

"The prototype is Muhammad Ali" in 1967 when he maintained his right to not be inducted into the U.S. Army on religious grounds, says professor Daniel Grano of the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. Grano says today it's almost a matter of routine, "it's practically generic, that a reference to Ali is going to be made whenever people engage in that kind of activism."

Ali's Journey From Superstar To Activist

Muhammad Ali embodied the collision of sports and politics like no athlete before him ... or since.

His journey from young superstar to activist is remarkable, even a half century later.

In 1960 he was still Cassius Clay from Louisville –- an 18-year-old with remarkable athletic gifts who wore red, white and blue after winning a gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics. He was known for his quick wit, supreme self-confidence, and boastful rhymes — but not politics. By 1964 he was the heavyweight champion of the world. That's also the year he joined the Nation of Islam — led by Malcolm X — and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. That move confused or shocked white Americans who followed his career, but that was nothing compared to the reaction when Ali refused induction into the U.S. Army in 1967 citing his religious beliefs and opposition to the Vietnam War. And the core of his protest was his identity as a black man – a black Muslim – in America.

Ali was as determined to stand up for what he believed in as he was to dominate opponents in the boxing ring. But instead of 15 rounds, this went on for 3 1/2 years. And it came at a very steep price, on unimaginable for an athlete today.

He was stripped of his title.

He was banned from boxing.

His source of income was gone.

This was when he was age 25-28, most certainly his prime athletic years.

Refusing The Idea Of A 'Comfortable Level Of Blackness'

Ali's willingness to publicly take an unpopular political stand sets him apart from groundbreaking African-American athletes that preceded him, says Kevin Blackistone, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland and a Washington Post columnist. Names like Olympian Jesse Owens and baseball's Jackie Robinson. For Owens and Robinson, their excellence in competition combined with their mere presence was THE political statement. And Blackistone notes that both "were asked to swallow their pride in order to participate in their sport at the highest level." Robinson had to agree take all manner of racial abuse, to ensure that what was labeled baseball's "Grand Experiment" would work. UNC's Grano adds Robinson was chosen not just for his athletic skills, but "because he represented a comfortable level of blackness for white fans."

"That changed with Ali," says Blackistone, "He stood in the face of that and refused any suggestion that he be anything other than himself."

As for taking on the Vietnam War, Blackistone notes that Ali "was really on an island. Not only as an athlete, but as an American citizen, because most Americans in the mid-1960s support the war effort in Vietnam."

In subsequent years Ali's actions inspired other athletes to step up. At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos had finished first and third in the 200 meter race. During the medal ceremony they donned black gloves, bowed their heads, and each held a fist in the air as the National Anthem was played. It was a protest to highlight how far the U.S. Civil Rights Movement had to go to eliminate racial injustice. It remains an iconic moment in Olympic history. The athletes were subsequently suspended from the U.S. Olympic team and banned from the Olympic village.

Other notables that followed include tennis star Arthur Ashe, a powerful voice in highlighting the apartheid system of racial segregation in South Africa. As an African-American, he was repeatedly denied visas to travel to South Africa to compete in tennis matches there. He subsequently lobbied for the U.S. to impose sanctions and was arrested in 1985 during a protest at the Embassy of South Africa in Washington.

Perhaps because Muhammad Ali paved the way, protests by athletes have become more acceptable to the general public.

There are still loud complaints from some that athletes should "just play the game" and "keep their politics out of sports." But the stakes in general are lower than what Ali faced. Still, an athlete taking a stand does risk alienating fans, sponsors, teammates and sportswriters, potential endorsement deals, and the university that has given them a scholarship.

It is perhaps ironic that in his post-athletic career, Ali became a figure embraced by Americans of all races, and indeed by the entire world as a symbol of courage. Much of that was due to the toll Parkinson's took on his body. He was frail and while still courageous, Ali was no longer the brash, in your face radical whose political stand in the sixties rattled those who would decades later praise him.
Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Jonese Franklin is the WFPL Program Director and host of All Things Considered. Email Jonese at jfranklin@lpm.org.