An Open Letter to Black Athletes

To: All Black Athletes

From: Rob Parker

Re: Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali is gone, but will never be forgotten.

In a world of phony sports legends and so-called icons, Ali was the real deal. Not just when he was in the ring winning championship belts and changing the world, but the entire way of his life that ended Saturday at age 74.

Ali, born Cassius Clay in 1942 – grandson of a slave, wasn’t going to let a sport, an agent, a public relations person, public opinion or an endorsement deal change him, his message.

Sadly, most black athletes can’t say that these days. Somehow, we’ve lost our way believing that only money matters.

Worse, many are afraid to just be honest even in the case of non-controversial topics. They are afraid of their own shadow, living for people who don’t even care about them or their people.

Those guys are always forgotten after they can’t play anymore and are no use to the money-making system they idolize. The reason is simple. When you look back, they didn’t say anything, they didn’t matter.

Everybody can’t be Ali-like and have a reach worldwide. We get that. Still, there are those who will be on that stage either now or down the line and they can’t miss the opportunity when it’s there. Ali sure didn’t.

Ali kept it real, warts and all. 

Al Roker said it best Monday morning on The Today Show. “In a pre-internet age, Ali was social media,” Roker said.

Social consciousness meant more to Ali than how many followers you have on Twitter, and how many kids are buying your sneakers.

Ali couldn’t just sit around and be content because his world was good, not when the rest of what his people were going through wasn’t.

It’s about respecting yourself, your people. That’s why Ali was revered in life and will continue to be in death.

So many of today’s athletes take themselves so seriously. It’s almost laughable. They worry about their “brand” and whether or not people like them.

And that’s not to say Ali was perfect. He definitely wasn’t. He made missteps along the way, too.

But that was OK. No one is perfect. There are bumps along the way for all.

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(The Shadow League’s Rob Parker and The Greatest)

The other thing that stands out is that Ali had a relationship with the media, especially with ABC sportscaster Howard Cosell. It was TV gold. Neither one backed down. Cosell asked the questions that needed to be asked and Ali answered them.

It was definitely an unlikely 30-year friendship. The reason it worked is simple. There was a genuine respect and affection for one another.

Think about that. Ali, in all his greatness, had respect for Cosell, who had a job to do.

Too often, it’s just not the case these days. Sports writers and reporters – including us black ones – aren’t a nuisance, a pestering fly in your world of fame and fortune.

Ali understood that. With Cosell, there was a give and take. Ali took on the questions, never shied away from getting his word or message out.

Read all the pieces from different sports writers around the country. So many admired Ali for being a man of principle and later went on to befriend the man they covered professionally. That doesn’t happen often. It spoke volumes about Ali.

He wasn’t just a meaningless athlete who wanted to get through his career without anyone criticizing him.

Sadly, too many athletes are so sensitive. They are so afraid to have to stand up and answer questions.

They hide behind PR people, Twitter and Instagram.

Ali never stopped having his say. He was even willing to put a suit and tie on and go in front on TV cameras on national TV and talk about his Parkinson’s disease.

Again, Ali was out front, upfront even when he wasn’t his best. He never hid.

We know what a champion Ali was. And he gets mad respect for what he was able to accomplish inside the ring.

Still, when people take a long look at Ali’s life, it will mostly be about what he did outside it as a man.

It’s not whether you agreed or disagreed with his actions. It’s not whether you thought he was a showoff or a showboat. Or that he didn’t know a camera or microphone he didn’t love.

Bottom line remains that Ali was always Ali. That’s something you can respect.

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