This was Muhammad Ali in the 1970s, the man most of America recently celebrated as an angelic truth-teller, a necessary and historic part of the American story. He was speaking about professional athletes.
“They make a million dollars,” he said. “They get ’em a Rolls Royce. They get ’em a nice home. They get ’em a white wife. ‘Well, I made it. America’s great.’ And the rest of [African-Americans] catching hell, and he won’t say nothing. But when one man of popularity can let the world know the problem, he might lose a few dollars himself telling the truth. He might lose his life.
“But he’s helping millions. But if I kept my mouth shut just because I can make millions, then this ain’t doin’ nothing. So I just love the freedom and the flesh and blood of my people more so than I do the money.”
See, Ali’s message wasn’t always neat and tidy. His legacy was complicated and brilliant. But that is why he was so important. He said things people needed to hear, even if they disagreed. Even if theyviolently disagreed.
Flash forward to Friday night, in 2016, and the national anthem plays before the 49ers faced Green Bay at Levi’s Stadium. Colin Kaepernickdeclined to stand. In doing so, he became one of the most important stories of the year in sports—and beyond.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told Steve Wyche of NFL Media after the 49ers’ loss to the Packers. “To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”