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Sports Columnist Dave Zirin on Muhammad Ali’s Career and His Groundbreaking Political Involvement

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Sports columnist Dave Zirin has written a new account of the career and politics of boxing legend Muhammad Ali. In his prime, Ali was an outspoken advocate of the Black Muslim movement and a critic of the Vietnam War. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryJun 10, 2016Dave Zirin on the Whitewashing of Muhammad Ali: He Wasn’t Against Just War, But Empire
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We end today with a new look at the boxing legend Muhammad Ali. Ali is considered the greatest boxer in the history of sports. In his prime, he was an outspoken advocate of the Black Muslim movement, a critic of the Vietnam War. He was sentenced to prison and stripped of his heavyweight title for refusing to fight in Vietnam.

NEWS ANCHOR: Cassius Clay, at a federal court in Houston, is found guilty of violating the U.S. Selective Service laws by refusing to be inducted. He is sentenced to five years in prison and fined $10,000.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt that came from the documentary When We Were Kings. Sports columnist Dave Zirin has written the book, the Muhammad Ali Handbook. It’s a new account of Ali’s career and his groundbreaking political involvement. Dave writes the weekly column, “Edge of Sports,” and is a regular contributor to The Nation magazine, joining us here in our firehouse studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!

DAVID ZIRIN: Great to be here, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we talk about Muhammad Ali, I want to go back to the top story today: Don Imus’s comments disparaging the Rutgers basketball team and Maretta Short of NOW talking about this being the 35th anniversary of Title IX. Can you talk more about this, because this is something you’ve written extensively about?

DAVID ZIRIN: Absolutely. When Title IX was first put into play back in the early 1970s, roughly one out of 29 girls in middle school, junior high school, high school, played sports. Today, that number is roughly one out of three. And so, statistics show that young girls who play sports at an early age are actually less likely to end up in abusive relationships, less likely to have eating disorders, less likely to have issues with drugs and alcohol. So you’re talking about legislation, a direct result of the women’s movement of the late '60s and early ’70s, that has benefited the lives of tens of millions of women in this country. And the fact that it's something that both George W. Bush and Chief Justice John Roberts have both said that they opposed, I think is something that we all should be very aware of on this anniversary of this incredible legislation.

AMY GOODMAN: And your thoughts on Don Imus, whether he should be fired?

DAVID ZIRIN: Oh, I think he should be canned like a tuna. I mean, I think I speak for a lot of people when I say I’m just so sick and tired of the shock jocks, of the Coulters, of the Imuses, being able to say whatever they want to say and then reaping the publicity from that, and then being able to just apologize and go on with a slight bump in their ratings.

But I’ll tell you something that’s bothersome to me, and this is why, really, I wrote the Muhammad Ali Handbook, is the silence from the world of sports. I mean, with all due respects to Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, I wanted to hear the rise of voices from NBA players, from WNBA players, from NBA Commissioner David Stern, from all the people who were offended by what Imus said. The sports world needs to have its own progressive milieu to respond to things like this.

I mean, look how political the world of sports is, everything from Pat Tillman to gay athletes to this issue. I mean, it’s so infused with politics. Yet, too often, politics is verboten for athletes. I have spoken in the last week to NBA and WNBA players who were repulsed by what Don Imus said. But the idea of speaking out is such a foreign concept that it makes Ali’s history all the more relevant for today: the athlete who would not be silenced.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about Muhammad Ali and what he would say out loud.

DAVID ZIRIN: What Ali would say out loud would be — well, he certainly would say, I think, “I have a quarrel with Don Imus.” I mean, and he would say — you know, even say, “I ain’t got no quarrel with the sisters at Rutgers University.” I mean, that’s the thing about Muhammad Ali in the 1960s that’s so incredible. I mean, he finished in the bottom 1 percent of his high school class. He barely graduated from high school. Yet, on all the important social issues of the day, on the edge of the black freedom struggle, on the Vietnam War, while all the best and the brightest were talking about “all deliberate speed” for integration and talking about war in Vietnam, Muhammad Ali knew what side he was on, time and again. He knew there was right, and he knew there was wrong. And because he had that direct connection both to a black political tradition that was antiwar, through people like Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad, Marcus Garvey, and also because his own family came from the black working class in the South, he knew which side he was on, on a series of these questions, when the leading edge of politics, of the so-called “experts,” were so patently wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play another clip highlighting Muhammad Ali’s political beliefs. This, a clip from When We Were Kings, the documentary about Ali’s 1974 championship bout with George Foreman in Kinshasa that came to be known as the “Rumble in the Jungle.”

MUHAMMAD ALI: Yeah, I’m in Africa. Yeah, Africa is my home. Damn America and what America thinks! Yeah, I live in America, but Africa is the home of the black man, and I was a slave 400 years ago, and I’m going back home to fight among my brothers. Yeah!

AMY GOODMAN: That was Muhammad Ali speaking in 1974.

DAVID ZIRIN: Absolutely. And, you know, going back to that Kinshasa fight, I think it’s a great example of the redemptive power of Muhammad Ali, because by that time he was somebody who, you know, had returned to the world of boxing, had fought off through the Supreme Court a five-year prison sentence given down to him by the federal courts, an outrageously high sentence for a draft resister at the time, and by the end, after that fight, he was named “Sportsman of the Year” by Sports Illustrated. So he makes this amazing journey from being the most vilified, hated athlete in the history of the United States — and I don’t think there’s any contention about that — to becoming a figure of reconciliation, who was invited by Gerald Ford to the White House to shake hands. And that’s the thing about Ali, is that he was always bound up in the rhythms of the social movements of the day. So in the '60s he becomes a figure that's beloved by the antiwar movement and the black freedom struggle, hated by the mainstream, yet as the movements died in the ’70s, he became a figure of bringing those two worlds back together.

AMY GOODMAN: This is another clip of Muhammad Ali, again from When We Were Kings, also before the fight with George Foreman.

MUHAMMAD ALI: I’m going to fight for the prestige, not for me, but to uplift my little brothers who are a sleeping on concrete floors today in America, black people who are living on welfare, black people who can’t eat, black people who don’t know no knowledge of themselves, black people who don’t have no future. I want to win my title and walk down the alleys, settle in the garbage can with the wineheads. I want to walk down the street with the dope addicts, talk to the prostitutes so I can help a lot of the people.

I can show them films. I can take this documentary. I can take movies and help organize my people in Louisville, Kentucky, Indianapolis, Indiana, Cincinnati, Ohio. I can go through [inaudible] and Florida and Mississippi and show the little black Africans in them countries, who didn’t know this is their country. You look like people in Mississippi, in Alabama and Georgia. They’re your brother, but they never knew you was over here, and you don’t know much about them. God has blessed me [inaudible] through boxing to help get to all these people and to show them films that I haven’t seen. I know they haven’t seen them. I’m well, and I haven’t seen them. Now I can go get all these films. You governments can let me take pictures. You can let me do things, and I can take all this back to America. But it’s good to be a winner. All I go to do is whoop George Foreman.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s right, that was Muhammad Ali, right before the fight with George Foreman in 1974.

DAVID ZIRIN: Yeah, and what I can’t help think about, hearing this, is about how distanced a lot of the star athletes are today from that kind of mindset, of saying, “I’m fighting for the people in the — for the winos, for the dopeheads, for the people who live in the gutter, for the people who are told that they can never amount to anything. You know, LeBron James, who’s the most famous player in the National Basketball Association, still only 22 years old, was asked in an interview about his career aspirations, and he said at the same time that he wanted to be a global icon like Muhammad Ali and that he wanted to be the first athlete billionaire. Now, if you actually know the history, those two ideas are so in conflict with one another, yet because all LeBron James knows is that Muhammad Ali is famous for being famous, that’s what LeBron James knows. And because few people have had their political teeth extracted like Muhammad Ali — I mean, he’s been the victim of a political root canal — so the hope for this book is to try to restore the teeth to what Muhammad Ali actually stood for in the ’60s.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about Gary Tyler. We did a broadcast with the New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, talking about his case. Explain how you’re organizing with athletes.

DAVID ZIRIN: Yes. I mean, first of all —

AMY GOODMAN: And explain his case quickly.

DAVID ZIRIN: Absolutely. Gary Tyler, he’s been in Angola prison, a former slave plantation, for 32 years. The case against him is spotty, to put it mildly. I believe he’s innocent, looking at the evidence in the case. Bob Herbert believes he’s innocent, looking at the evidence of the case. And I read Bob Herbert’s three columns published over the course of a month in The New York Times, and I heard him on your show, Amy, and when I heard this, I tried to ask myself, “Well, what can I do to help?” I mean, it was so stark and so upsetting, Gary Tyler’s story.

So, you know, my little corner of the world is the intersection of athletes and politics. So I put out a call. I wrote a letter, calling it “Jocks for Justice,” sent it out to some athletes, and I wanted to see who would be willing to sign on and if we could get some publicity by doing a public statement. And I’ve got to tell you, one of the things that was really shocking about it is, usually getting in touch with former athletes, with famous athletes, it’s like trying to get in touch with Don Corleone, like you have to talk to the guy who knows the guy who knows the guy just to talk to somebody. And it was so striking to me how people just got back to me so quickly, the older athletes, people like Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, Tommy Smith and John Carlos, former Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton and Red Sox all-star Bill “Spaceman” Lee. They remembered Gary’s case from the early ’70s, and immediately they got back to me: “Sign me on.”

Some of the younger athletes, people like Etan Thomas for the Washington Wizards, or Toni Smith, the woman basketball player who made her stand protesting the war at Manhattanville College. They, like me, needed to be educated on the case, because it has been so forgotten over the last 30 years. But when they heard about it, I mean, it was just like — it has that feel of a movement right now, and they were on board.

AMY GOODMAN: And just again, for those who didn’t hear our broadcast of the case of Gary Tyler, Gary Tyler is the man who’s been in prison now since he was 16 years old, his case being called one of the great miscarriages of justice in modern history in the United States. He’s the African American jailed in 1974 for a murder many believe he didn’t commit, an all-white jury convicting him based entirely on the statement of four witnesses who have later recanted their testimony.

I want to thank you very much, Dave Zirin, for joining us. The new book is called Muhammad Ali Handbook. Howard Zinn has called Dave Zirin a “talented sportswriter with a social conscience.”

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Dave Zirin on the Whitewashing of Muhammad Ali: He Wasn’t Against Just War, But Empire

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