Muhammad Ali also said, on the topic of interracial marriage, “No intelligent black man or black woman in his or her right black mind wants white boys and white girls coming to their homes to marry their black sons and daughters.”
At the peak of his boxing career, the former Cassius Clay was equally candid about black nationalism: “Why don’t we get out and build our own nation? White people just don’t want their slaves to be free. That’s the whole thing. Why not let us go and build ourselves a nation?”
Maybe the biggest difference between Muhammad Ali and Tim Thomas is this: Ali didn’t pretend that it wasn’t about politics.
Thomas, the Boston Bruins goalie, has been deflecting everything except hockey pucks ever since he was in absentia last Monday as his teammates visited the White House, an honor annually extended to the reigning Stanley Cup champions.
He explained his reason for declining the invitation with a written statement on his Facebook page:
I believe the Federal government has grown out of control, threatening the Rights, Liberties, and Property of the People.
This is being done at the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial level. This is in direct opposition to the Constitution and the Founding Fathers vision for the Federal government.
Because I believe this, today I exercised my right as a Free Citizen, and did not visit the White House. This was not about politics or party, as in my opinion both parties are responsible for the situation we are in as a country. This was about a choice I had to make as an INDIVIDUAL.
This is the only public statement I will be making on this topic. TT
In the meantime, Thomas has been alternately cast as an idiot, a hero, a pariah and a bad teammate, opinions that require nothing more than a cursory knowledge of hockey or politics. The bad-teammate thing interests me mostly because it was validated by someone in-house, per an anonymous quote in the Boston Globe1.
It was an awkward moment for sure, but what is the endgame? If Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli decides he must trade Thomas (which doesn’t seem likely), the White House incident will become an inextricable part of the goaltender’s legacy – the all-too-visible tipping point where Thomas’ selfishness could not be overcome by his ability to stop a puck. And that would be a shame. The situation never would have gotten so far if Thomas hadn’t led the Bruins to their first championship in 39 years, the only way the team gets invited to the White House in the first place. How ironic.
Still, for as awkward as this has been for Cam Neely and the rest of the team’s front office (and for as good as Tuukka Rask is), the Bruins won’t trade Thomas. In fact, I would wager that this will all blow over in a time-heals-all-wounds kind of way. The venom will seep out of the angry tweets. The Facebook outcries will be forgotten. Today’s headlines about Thomas’ politics will become tomorrow’s asterisk in the back of a few minds.
Instead, I think this rare convergence of sports and politics will come to serve as a history lesson – not a tale of how an undrafted college goalie from Flint, Michigan became a minor-league journeyman, an elite goalie in Europe, an NHL starter, a Stanley Cup champion, and ultimately an ultra-conservative figurehead (although this should be remembered as an impressive transformation).
Let’s go back to Ali for a minute.
It’s easy to forget how radical Ali was politically because he was such a good boxer, at a time when boxing enjoyed a much larger audience than it does now2. Ali celebrated his 70th birthday on Jan. 17. Based on my own unscientific study of public sentiments, people today have fond memories of Muhammad Ali.
At the height of the civil rights movement, it might have been easy to draw lines between Ali’s foes and fans along racial and generational lines. Of those who might not want to bake the boxer a birthday cake today, many are dead. Quoting again from the Observer:
Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times labelled him the ‘white man’s burden’. Jimmy Cannon of the New York Journal-American called Ali’s ties to the Nation of Islam ‘the dirtiest in American sports since the Nazis were shouting for Max Schmeling as representative of their vile theories of blood’.
Likewise, Thomas has inspired his share of animus. But until the goalie receives his first death threat, I don’t think it’s fair to compare the controversies both he and Ali ignited – beyond the fact that, culturally, neither Thomas nor Ali ignited a thing.
Rather, both athletes exposed pre-existing social and political divisions in America. Fans came seeking hockey in 2011, or boxing in 1964 (when Clay became Ali), and instead were treated to an uncomfortable, larger lesson. When the best goalie in the world can say what Thomas said, or when the best boxer in the world can say what Ali said, guess what? It’s about politics.
Maybe the lesson is only uncomfortable if you disagree with their politics. But as fans of Thomas or Ali, we can’t have it both ways. We can’t hate Michael Jordan for saying “Republicans buy sneakers, too” and condemn Jim Brown, arguably the greatest running back in history, for retiring from football at age 29 and shifting his life’s focus to activism. We can’t chide LeBron James for poo-pooing an embraceable cause like human rights, then hate LeBron James for suddenly picking up the same cause.
Even for his most apolitical fans, Thomas has virtually eliminated “meh” as a possible response. His prepared statement attempted to set a “regardless-of-your-politics” type tone, but that’s not the America we live in. Muhammad Ali proved it some 40-plus years ago; Thomas proved it on Monday.
So sports is a microcosm of society, after all. You can thank Tim Thomas for that reminder, whether you wanted it or not.
Beyond that, I’m a tad confused.
A team of neurologists famously announced last year that there are structural differences between the brains of liberals and conservatives. Specifically, “people who identified themselves as liberals generally had a larger anterior cingulate cortex — a comma-shaped region near the front of the brain that is involved in decision-making. By contrast, those who identified as conservatives had larger amygdalas — almond-shaped structures that are linked with emotional learning and the processing of fear.”
1. Both the quote itself and the source itself were left extremely vague. “Selfish” is the only word that made it through in the article, but selfishness is not a good quality in a team setting.
2. Heck, boxing during Ali’s heyday was bigger than hockey is now.