Muhammad Ali has been hot ever since, with shaky hand and placid expression, he lit the torch to open the 1996 Olympics. There has been an Academy Award-winning documentary, a bestselling book, countless magazine covers -- even the front of a Wheaties box, an honor never before bestowed upon the fighter once known as "The Louisville Lip." But when Ali had the power of speech, his public image was decidedly different. Draft resister and black nationalist, Ali was a threat to white America in the late '60s, long before the rap group Public Enemy coined the phrase "Fear of a Black Planet."
Now, some 30 years later, a softer, cuddlier Ali is celebrated. Silenced by Parkinson's syndrome (a degenerative nerve condition), he is consistently praised for his commitment to principle, and he is served up as an antidote for today's greedy, self-centered professional athlete. Time and again the myopic press tells us that this generation's icons would do well to follow Ali's socially conscious lead.
When Michael Jordan announced his retirement from basketball earlier this year, the comparisons to Ali began flying fast and furious. In terms of social impact, the conventional wisdom went, Jordan comes up short. It started at his farewell press conference, when Jordan was asked if he might now try to help "solve some of the world's problems."
"I can't solve the world's problems," Jordan responded, noting that he still had TV commercials to star in, golf to play and kids to raise. The New York Times' Ira Berkow wouldn't take no for an answer. "If he isn't playing basketball, he should have enough time to read up on issues," he wrote.
"Jordan uses his clout to peddle sneakers and star in unwatchable movies with Bugs Bunny, leaving the very distinct impression that he has the social consciousness of a baked potato," agreed John Schulian in the pages of GQ, in a piece that named Ali the athlete of the century.
And now comes "Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties," a compelling reminder of just how revolutionary Ali was. But even writer Michael Marqusee can't refrain from dissing Jordan in light of Ali, arguing that Jordan's "blackness has been deliberately submerged within his Americanness, which is reduced, in the end, to his individual wealth and success."
More than 30 years ago, Ali scoffed at the patronizing press that had dubbed Joe Louis "a credit to his race" and found Ali threatening. "I don't have to be what you want me to be," he said then. Ironically, Jordan, famous for the marketing tag line "Be Like Mike," has been criticized by the likes of Jesse Jackson, Arthur Ashe, Jim Brown and a white liberal press for not being like Ali.
Just as the conventional wisdom about Ali was off-base three decades ago, so, too, is this reevaluation of Jordan, this notion that he stands for nothing more lofty than enriching his own bank account. Maybe history will repeat itself and, in 30 years, the American media will do another about-face and begin to credit Jordan as a truly groundbreaking figure.
The anti-Jordan camp has gained momentum recently. There was his silence over Nike's use of cheap overseas labor. Then he refused to endorse Harvey Gantt, a credible black challenger to Sen. Jesse Helms in Jordan's home state of North Carolina. "Our situation is increasingly desperate, and I admire those athletes and entertainers who consciously try to give something back to people," wrote Ashe in his posthumously published autobiography, "Days of Grace." "I am less happy with the demureness of someone like Michael Jordan, who is as popular as he is rich. While I defend Jordan's right to stay out of politics in general, I think he made a mistake in declining to give any open support to Harvey Gantt."
But while Jordan came in for criticism, no one was peppering tennis star Pete Sampras, another Nike endorser, with political questions. Nor were any pundits demanding that Bill Gates endorse candidates for public office. Was it Jordan's skin color that singled him out for spokesman status? The assumption that Jordan would support Gantt because both are black told more about how the pundits viewed African-Americans -- as a monolithic voting bloc -- than it did about Jordan.
The demand that Jordan be an Ali-like spokesman for his people grows out of a civil rights-era mind-set, and Jordan is part of a post-civil rights generation, the first to attain a modicum of power from within the establishment. In this cultural moment, Jordan doesn't matter so much for what he says as for what he's done. He has undermined countless stereotypes, the very caricatures that underpin the racism decried by his liberal critics. After all, he is not lazy, unintelligent, inarticulate or, most important, incapable of handling money. In fact, Jordan has become the walking embodiment of onetime Ali mentor Malcolm X's dream -- he is a black-run business unto himself.
"Ali's politics grew out of the times," says Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California and author of the 1997 book "Am I Black Enough for You?" "But Jordan's presence assumes a political stance. The fact that he exists has political significance."
Jesse Jackson is fond of saying, "There are tree shakers, and there are jelly makers." Until Jordan, however, black athletes opted exclusively for the shake. From Ali to Tommy Smith and John Carlos at the '68 Olympics to Charles Barkley's pledge to be a "'90s nigga -- we do what we want to do," the socially conscious black athlete's role was to publicly rail against injustice. But then along came Jordan, who was more interested in making the jelly, in accumulating power by parlaying his athletic talent into a business empire now valued at some $500 million. Today, his true legacy lies in a new generation of black jocks who see that they can leverage their sports careers into economic empowerment.
"I wouldn't have started these businesses if I hadn't watched Michael these last few years," says Chris Webber, star forward for the Sacramento Kings and owner of a Gold's Gym franchise and a recording label that employs black people in his hometown of Detroit. "He's showed me that I could be more than just an athlete." Webber is not an aberration. Athletes evolving into business entities, seeing themselves as entrepreneurs, has become the norm now. Basketball star Grant Hill has dumped his management company and taken his career into his own hands. "Michael's led the way for what I'm doing now," he says. Similarly, basketball's Allen Iverson fired Jordan's longtime agent, David Falk, and now has his own line of hip-hop clothing about to debut. Football star Keyshawn Johnson -- in the NFL for all of three years -- just opened Reign, a trendy Los Angeles restaurant. And do you believe for a moment that, before each and every business decision, Tiger Woods doesn't ask himself, "What would Mike do?"
For all his visibility, Ali never had such impact. In fact, Ali went broke, as did Joe Louis and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Single-handedly, Jordan made himself into a refutation of the "nigger-rich" stereotype long fostered by the business failings of other athletes.
Ali had media cachet, but lacked the power even to stand up to Don King, the scourge of his own sport. Yes, Ali's rhetoric was enchanting, but he was never able to flex his muscles as Jordan did recently when he walked away from buying into the Charlotte Hornets because he wasn't being given enough control (and thereby forever sealed the reputation of that team's owner as the guy who stood in the way of the hometown savior rescuing the franchise).
Just as Ali's outspokenness was of his time, so too are Jordan's boardroom moves. Jordan came of age along with hip-hop (even though his musical tastes run more to the likes of Luther Vandross), in which artists/entrepreneurs like Chuck D, Puff Daddy and Master P have focused on controlling the means of production in addition to being the product. Ironically, Ali's defiance, not to mention his legendary rhymes, informs their art. But Jordan's business acumen has had an equally important, practical impact; from Jordan, they got the message that, in the words of USC's Boyd, they could "empower themselves by capitalizing on their image -- and that any sense of self-determination that comes from that is truly political, because it's liberating."
And, speaking of hip-hop, it bears noting that the demand for Jordan to become overtly political might just make a prophet out of rapper Ice-T, who released an album a decade ago
subtitled "Freedom of Speech ... Just Watch What You Say." Jordan may have sensed the disingenuousness of those who called on him to speak out; would they be so eager to hear views that didn't follow the party line? In fact, though it may disappoint Berkow and his ilk, there is scant evidence that Jordan is passionate about speaking on behalf of the disenfranchised. There is, however, ample proof that he gets worked up arguing for free-market principles, as he did during last season's NBA lockout. In that dispute, he lambasted the league's owners, all of whom had made fortunes as capitalists but who wanted their laborers to accept an artificial cap on their salaries. To the media, Jordan suddenly personified the greed of today's athlete. One can't help wondering if that was because, in taking a public stand normally articulated by white men of his tax bracket, he'd violated the media-approved, Ali-informed "black athlete as spokesman for the underclass" script.
Besides, if the press were truly interested in an athlete breaking new political ground, Jordan's flamboyant former teammate, Dennis Rodman, would have been lauded by the macho sports press instead of jeered when he spoke in favor of gay rights. (Or dismissed as a publicity hound when he paid for the funeral of James Byrd, the black man in Texas who was tied to a pickup truck and dragged to his death by white supremacists.)
Jordan has often said that he doesn't know enough about politics to wade into it, and it makes perfect sense that someone who so diligently prepared for basketball games would want to be just as well-versed before engaging in another type of public battle. After all, our athletes are among the least equipped among us to hold their own in matters of state, for they are prodigies: They've been raised to work and focus on one thing to the exclusion of almost all else. Self-absorption is practically part of the job description.
Yet the demand for athletes to somehow lead us morally continues. When the bait is taken, the whole dynamic has the stench of a media set-up -- something Jordan smelled back in 1992, when, in a Playboy interview, he responded to his liberal critics by saying, "Don't knock me off that pedestal that you wanted me to get on to."
Others haven't been quite as perceptive. Witness the rambling, bigoted comments of recently retired NFL star and ordained minister Reggie White, who told the Wisconsin Legislature that Puerto Ricans have a skill for "fitting 40 people in an apartment" and American Indians "knew how to sneak up on people." Listening to White, one couldn't help wondering: What genius provided the forum for this?
Those who invoke the legacy of Ali to goad the likes of White or Jordan into answering big-picture questions never posed to Sampras or Cal Ripken seem to have conveniently forgotten that circumstances helped turn Ali into a sociopolitical icon. Had he not been drafted into the military, he would have simply been another great boxer. Jordan has been confronted with no such reason to be anything more than what he is -- a true symbol of the American dream, owner of a personal narrative that begins with talent and hard work and ends in stunning wealth and personal empowerment.
Besides, there is evidence that Jordan would regret heeding the call to enter the political fray. Jackie Robinson did get involved in politics toward the end of his life, and emerged bitter for the experience. As he wrote in his 1972 autobiography, in the '40s "I had more faith in the ultimate justice of the American white man than I have today." What Robinson came to realize, too late, was that by breaking baseball's color line, he didn't need to say anything. He made one of the century's most eloquent political statements every time he walked out on the field.
Here's hoping that Michael Jordan will learn from Robinson's dying regret. And that, rather than being in conflict, the roles of Ali and Jordan will come to be seen as part of a continuum: Ali as tree shaker, helping to make a jelly maker like Jordan possible.