Being in the crowd along the sidewalks of Louisville on that hot day a few weeks ago, waiting with everyone else for the passing of Muhammad Ali’s funeral cortege, if your heart didn’t soar and circle above the crowd, I don’t even want to know you. But, at the same time, there was considerable talk about why another Ali has not arisen to confront on a great stage the urgent issues of the current day. A lot of that talk was quite harsh on the modern-day athlete, especially the modern-day African-American athlete. (I am willing to bet something substantial that, if there was one public statement that Michael Jordan could take back, it would be that one about how Republicans buy shoes, too. That’s hung like a dead raccoon over his public conscience for going on four decades now.) I mainly sat back and listened, keeping in mind, as I always do, the words of the late Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who cautioned, “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts, and white men who ‘understand the Negro.’”
The cries for a new Ali have drowned out the history of the old one. Once Parkinson’s made him unable to speak for himself, the causes of Ali’s life were softened by people who did not exactly share them at the time. The sharp edges of what he stood for were filed down to a comfortable dullness, even by the people who professed to be his admirers. In his prime—which means his political and athletic primes, which were not the same thing—Ali was in no way a simple figure of reconciliation. All of which is to say that the people urging athletes to take similar stands ought to remember that they’re playing ideological Action Figures with the lives of real people.
In addition, the yearning for a new Ali, and for a past that never was, tends to obscure the actual public stands that the athletes of this time have taken. In 2012, when Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman, NBA players, led by LeBron James and the members of the Miami Heat, stepped forward in protest, as did a number of athletes from other sports. (When Eric Garner was choked to death by members of the New York Police Department, James wore an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt onto the court.) Members of the then-St. Louis Rams raised their hands in protest after the killing of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson. And, in recent days, Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks has called for action in the wake of the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. In addition, there was the collective action taken by the football team at the University of Missouri in response to racial incidents on that campus. If you really don’t see athletes coming forward on issues of national importance, at least in the past couple of years, you really haven’t been looking.
And, salaries or no, by doing so, they are walking into no less of a buzzsaw than did Ali, although, today, there isn’t a Vietnam War to add additional tinder. In Missouri, when the players walked out, the legislature considered a bill to take away their scholarships. You can ask the Dixie Chicks what it’s like to hang yourself out in public on a serious issue these days; “Shut up and sing” is one tiny verb away from “Shut up and play.” To call on them to do more seems to me to be extraordinarily presumptuous. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar can do it. Or Jim Brown. But I hope they don’t. I’d like to see this development run its own course among the athletes who grew up in a different world and a different culture from the athletes of the 1960’s. They were marked and formed by different social and cultural imperatives. Kareem was a child of the Harlem Renaissance. Brown spent his formative years on a sea island in Georgia. Bill Russell grew up in the segregated boondocks of Louisiana and in the housing projects of Oakland. Carmelo grew up in the blasted aftermath of the crack explosion in Baltimore. Everyone is entitled to come to their stands in their own way, and in their own time. Everyone, as my Irish grandmother used to say, talking about life in general, is free to go to hell by their own road.
What they do need now, though, is a leader, someone who can exemplify and embody the collective spirit of this new activism. For a while, I thought it might be LeBron James, and it still might be but, while he remains admirably willing to put himself and his reputation on the line, both inside and outside his sport, there is something of the proud foot-soldier to what he’s done, a Eudoros looking for his Achilles. If that’s the case, then he need not look very far. The champion the movement is looking for could be right there in the news in front of him, someone straight outta Compton.
Her name is Serena Williams.
The easy stuff first. Muhammad Ali would not have become a transcendent international figure if he were not first a transcendent athlete. At his death, there was some revisionist chatter about how he might have fared against, say, Joe Louis or Rocky Marciano. But, at his peak, which came before his political exile, he was faster than anyone who was bigger, and bigger than anyone who was faster. He rearranged his sport like very few other people ever have.
Serena Williams’s competitive record has gone from spectacular to damn near ludicrous, and it’s done so even as she’s gotten older, which is amazing enough. Her victory on Saturday over Angelique Kerber in the Wimbledon finals was her 22nd Grand Slam title. If we measure an athlete’s right to a public platform by the athlete’s competitive success—which we shouldn’t, but generally do—then Williams has built a sturdy one from which to speak. The more they have to risk, even though they seem insulated by the amount of money they make and the celebrity that attends the money, then the more folks are likely to listen. This is a very sad truth, but a harsh one nonetheless.
The difference today is that there are voices demanding to be heard that were silenced even within the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. Women’s voices, to name one. There was no little turmoil during the Movement days at how women’s voices—including those of giants in the struggle like Diane Nash and Ella Baker—were minimized in the councils of the various organizations, even though Nash was so deeply involved in the Freedom Rider movement that Attorney General Robert Kennedy wondered out loud “who in the hell” she was. (In fact, the name of the very first Freedom Rider, a Virginia factory worker named Irene Morgan, who won a victory in the Supreme Court in 1946 that desegregated interstate travel, is largely lost to history, as is the fact that she kicked the first deputy who tried to move her out of her seat on a bus squarely in his groin.) Gay people were marginalized even further; it took Jesse Jackson, to name one, a long time to come around on LGBTQ rights, especially on marriage equality. Now, though, those voices have long since stopped asking politely for a place in the dialogue of equality.
There has been some indication that Williams is growing into this particular moment in time. It was always there in her; sixteen years ago, she pulled out of a tournament in South Carolina because the Confederate flag flew above a nearby courthouse. She tweeted out a picture of roses in tribute to the victims of the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. In the aftermath of her victory in London, however, she brought all this to, yes, another level. Williams reacted strongly and publicly to the killings of Sterling and Castile, as well as the killing of the five law-enforcement officers in Dallas.
I feel anyone in my color in particular is of concern. I do have nephews that I’m thinking, Do I have to call them and tell them, ‘Don’t go outside. If you get in your car, it might be the last time I see you.’ That is something that I think is of great concern, because it will be devastating. They’re very good kids. I don’t think that the answer is to continue to shoot our young black men in the United States. It’s just unfortunate. Or just black people in general. Also, obviously, violence is not the answer of solving it. The shooting in Dallas was very sad. No one deserves to lose their life, doesn’t matter what color they are, where they’re from. We’re all human. We have to learn that we have to love one another. It’s going to take a lot of education and a lot of work, I think, to get to that point. But I think, in general, the entire situation is extremely sad, especially for someone like me. It’s something that is very painful to see happening.
Moreover, earlier in the tournament, she spoke out boldly on the issue of equality of prize money and on the place of female athletes in our games.
I’ve been given such a great opportunity, I’ve been given so much talent. I’ve been put in a position where I can inspire females, ladies, and men as well. Anyone, any kid out there that wants to be something, has dreams. I’ve had great dreams. I didn’t come from any money or anything, but I did have a dream and I did have hope. That’s really all you need. We shouldn’t put any female athlete in a box. Why do we have to be limited to just female athletes? We all work really hard. We just want to be known as just athletes.
Later, she cemented that position by volleying back a question from some journo about her now being the “greatest female athlete of all time.”
“I prefer 'one of the greatest athletes of all time.'"
Nobody is going to be the next Muhammad Ali. Homo sapiens doesn’t deserve more than one of those. And nobody but Serena Williams herself has the right to make her into an icon, or to put her at the head of whatever movement is passing by. It is a different time with a different set of rules. Imagine, for good and ill, Ali in the age of social media. But some things about this country do not change, also for good and ill, and Serena Williams seems to be coming to understand the perilous opportunity that her magnificent talent and her equally magnificent presence afford her. She can take that perilous opportunity or not. It is her choice, and not ours to make for her. But it’s there.