(Toni Smith, 2003)
So much to say. I am busy with some deadlines, so will have to keep it brief for now. My friend, Matt Andrews – a legendarily good professor at UNC, focusing especially on sports history – and I are going to be starting a podcast soon focusing on sports history. Ali will be the topic of our first show.
(By the way, if you’re interested in a fun, irreverent “Trump” t-shirt, you can go here:
On to the show:
When Muhammad Ali passed away last Friday, someone on twitter (I can’t find the tweet now) said that at least half the people now praising Ali would have denounced the stances he took at the time he took them. Leaving aside the necessarily anachronistic nature of the claim, I agree wholeheartedly. Just as many have embraced a whitewashed version of Martin Luther King, Jr., so too many now pay homage to the cleaned up version of Ali that most folks have come to know in recent years. But in his day, first when he embraced the widely detested Nation of Islam and then when he refused to serve in the United States army and denounced in the strongest terms what our flag represented to the non-white peoples of the world, Ali was not universally beloved. He was denounced by many, including lots of liberal-minded sportswriters and others who found his attack on the meaning of Americanism to be far beyond the pale of respectability and acceptability.
That tweet reminded me of Toni Smith, someone who few people probably remember. Just over a decade ago, Smith was a student at Manhattanville college, a small school just north of New York City. She played for the women’s basketball team, a Division III program. Briefly, in March 2003, she made national headlines for turning her back toward the American flag during the national anthem. Her act was in protest of the impending US invasion of Iraq, which Smith believed to be unjust.
That quiet and simple act of protest elicited widespread condemnation and vilification. I won’t try to catalogue all the ugly, sexist and stupid shit directed at Smith.
But I’ll recount one, from the non-right wing corner of the sports media universe, Dan Patrick. Patrick worked for ESPN at the time and was, as he is today, among the very highest profile sports commentators in the business. Here’s part of what he had to say about Smith’s protest:
Throughout history, the union of sports and politics has been at times odd, but impactful. In 1968, we witnessed the silent protest of John Carlos and Tommie Smith during the Olympic games in Mexico City. We saw Muhammad Ali dodge the draft and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf sit during the pregame national anthem in Denver. And whether you or I agree with them, they had that right.
In this case, however, boundaries have been crossed. It’s one thing to voice an opinion, but it’s completely different to turn your back — literally, not figuratively. In turning her back on the American flag, Smith is doing more than making her point — she’s rejecting everything the flag and this country represent.
Smith is a young woman who, if and when we go to war with Iraq, will continue to live in the United States, perhaps raise a family here and continue to enjoy the freedoms of our democratic system. She should consider that the decisions she makes now will stick with her throughout her lifetime — people will remember. And I hope she’s ready for the repercussions.
Ultimately, I thank God that a young girl like Toni Smith has the right to protest. But I also can’t ignore the ignorance and naiveté of her stance.
Patrick’s column was, in a word, cowardly. In the guise of providing counsel to Smith, Patrick aligned himself with those who would condemn her because she actually had the guts to oppose visibly an indulgent orgy of flag-waving. The simple-minded version of patriotism that was especially fashionable after 9/11 was both fomented and exploited by the Bush administration in order to prosecute a war built on transparent lies. Most public commentators, including plenty of liberals and Democrats were too chicken shit to speak out against it at the time. So when a 21-year college student did, Dan Patrick fell back on a bullshit version of patriotism to let everyone know that he was on the “right” side. Patrick’s column also reflected the ongoing sanitizing of the legacy of Ali. Note his effort to rank order acts of transgression, in which physically turning one’s back on the flag crosses a line that Ali’s “draft dodging” or, more broadly “expressing an opinion” doesn’t. As a reminder, here’s one of Ali’s most famous quotes about why he refused to serve:
“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape or kill my mother and father…. How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”
Ali here is impugning the flag and what it stands for in the strongest possible terms. And he didn’t just express opinions like this once. He spent years on the lecture circuit during his banishment from boxing in the late 1960s condemning the war and the government that was prosecuting it.
In other words, Patrick attempted, on the eve of a shameful and indefensible war, to hide behind a purportedly generalized belief in the right to protest (and what a brave stand that is) while denouncing an act that is an indisputable kindred of the protests he claimed to find acceptable.
It takes little character to claim retrospective kinship with brave and provocative dissidents once they’ve become “respectable.” It’s something else entirely to stand in solidarity with women and men of conscience when doing so is not popular. Ali is justly recognized for his greatness outside the ring not because he was so easy to love. It’s because he was willing to act on his conscience, even if doing so engendered widespread hatred.