Muhammad Ali was the 'godfather' of movements like the NFL protests

Daniel Roberts
Senior Writer

Amidst an ongoing national political firestorm over NFL players kneeling in protest during the national anthem, the timing is serendipitous for the release of a comprehensive new Muhammad Ali biography.

The book, “Ali: A Life,” hits stores this month. It strips back the facade of Ali, the beloved boxer, to shed light also on Ali, the Nation of Islam member and Vietnam War objector.

Muhammad Ali and political protest

Ali’s political leanings have been forgotten by many over time; the edges to his reputation have smoothed. “I think people forget how despised he was,” says biographer Jonathan Eig. “He was the most hated man in America in the 1960s. And because he became this beloved figure later when he got older and he slowed down, especially when he became sick, we all wanted to just put our arms around him, we forget how angry he was and how angry he made Americans who thought that he was out of line.”

Many Americans today feel that NFL players kneeling during the anthem are out of line. In a recent Seton Hall Sports Poll, 84% of Americans surveyed said they support the players’ right to protest, but only 35% of them are in favor of their specific form of protest.

It’s not a stretch to say that the NFL demonstrations today owe a debt to Ali. He was, “the godfather for this kind of movement,” says Eig. “We’re seeing it now, and it’s more obvious, but for a long time, African-Americans in general, and [African-American] athletes in particular, were expected to just go along, and perform, and not say anything… You had to follow these rules for White America to accept you. Ali said, ‘Screw that, I’m doing what I want,’ and that changed everything.”

Eig’s book is a towering achievement: after countless books have been written on the boxer, his still manages to unveil new discoveries, surprises, and juicy anecdotes. It is a comprehensive, diligently reported, fast-moving read that will likely be taken as the definitive Ali biography.

[Eig sat down for a short bonus episode of our Sportsbook podcast on the business of football; you can listen on iTunes here or scroll to the bottom of this post.]

Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King in 1967 at a rally in Louisville, condemning the Vietnam War. (AP)

Muhammad Ali and Colin Kaepernick

As ESPN SportsCenter anchor Jemele Hill said at a conference last summer, “When I hear a viewer say they don’t want their politics mixed with sports, I say, ‘Well, what do you think about Muhammad Ali?’ And then, all of a sudden it’s glowing praise. And I’m like, ‘Well, the reason why you’re saying that is because you know he turned out to be right.'”

You might wonder if the same could happen to Colin Kaepernick, who has been virulently criticized by much of the country, including President Donald Trump. With the benefit of a few years’ distance, might Kaepernick be seen more widely as a civil rights leader and agent of positive change?

“I think we’ll see that Kaepernick had a right to speak out… The key for Ali was that he went on fighting, won the heavyweight championship two more times.”

Kaepernick, who isn’t currently signed to a team, may never get the same chance to prove himself again in his sport.

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite. Find more Sportsbook videos here, and check out the Sportsbook podcast.

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