Ali the icon is used to sell books, computers, snack foods, and anything not nailed down. Ali the man sacrificed his health, future, and untold millions by standing up to racism and war. No one is demanding you do the same. No one is insisting you get in front of a microphone and say, “I aint got no quarrel with them Iraqis.”
But you should understand that the reason Ali remains a “global icon” is precisely because he didn’t define himself by his corporate sponsors. When his handlers told him to stop throttling the golden goose of fame he said, “Damn the money! Damn the white man’s money!”
Evidence is accumulating that this won’t become the King James catchphrase of choice.
Your teammate Ira Newble tried to get every member of the Cavs to sign a letter calling on China to stop exacerbating the genocide in Darfur by dealing arms to the government. “There’s innocent people dying, and it’s just a tragedy to stand back and let them do what they’re doing,” Newble said.
One of Newble’s inspirations take a stand has been the person he “idolized as a child”: Muhammad Ali. That would be Ali the man, not the brand.
Newble stuffed fact sheets and articles in the lockers of every member on the team. He organized almost the entire squad to sign a letter that reads in part, “We, as basketball players in the N.B.A. and as potential athletes in the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, cannot look on with indifference to the massive human suffering and destruction that continue in the Darfur region of Sudan.” Larry Hughes signed. “Big Z,” Zydrunas Ilgauskas signed. Drew Gooden signed.
Only two people refused and one was you. Nike, with whom you have a $90 million shoe deal, does business with China so you treated that letter like Dick Cheney treats a salad.
[There’s no guarantee the young Ali would have signed this letter either. He may very well have said he wouldn’t sign any letter telling China to get out of Darfur until the US was out of Iraq. After all this was a man who said, “The real enemy of my people is here.” But one thing is for certain: “show me the money” would not have trumped “damn the money.” No way.]
Consumer advocate Ralph Nader also tried to give you the chance to walk the Ali path. He sent you a public invitation to a forum about conditions in Nike factories. In the letter, Nader wrote,
“Mr. James, you are in a unique position to stand up for the people who make the products you endorse and to make the world a better place in the process. You can improve their working conditions in the contracted factories and pressure the entire sports shoe and apparel industry to change.”
You replied to the press: “No, I haven’t responded to it. But I think Nike’s a great company and they would respond if need be.”
The shoe wars continued in March in New York, when you dissed and dismissed Stephon Marbury’s $14.98 sneaker line. You, whose signature Nikes go for $150, were asked whether you would ever sell a shoe that didn’t cost a week’s pay at McDonalds. You said, “No, I don’t think so. Me being with Nike, we hold our standards high.”
Marbury answered your words with the underreported smackdown of the season, saying, “I’d rather own than be owned.” Damn.
Jim Brown once explained the allure of Ali in the 1960s this way: “White folks could not stand free black folks. White America could not stand to think that a sports hero that it was allowing to make big dollars would have the courage to stand up like no one else and risk, not only his life, but everything else that he had.”
The choice you face is frankly quite stark: how free to do you want to be? Do you want to be “King James of Nike Manor” or the King of the World? Only by refusing to be owned, only by displaying independence from the very corporate interests that enrich you, will you ever make the journey from brand to three dimensional man.
Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming book: “Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports” (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to http://zirin.com/edgeofsports/?p=subscribe&id=1. Contact him at [email protected]
Sports Forum Podcast
Episode #10 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: An Issues Discussion With Paul Dolan – Dolan is the Cleveland Indians Owner and CEO. He discusses the use of Native American names and logos by sports teams and the decisions to drop the Chief Wahoo logo and the upcoming change to the team name. Other baseball topics include health and safety, possible MLB rule changes and youth participation in the sport.
Follow on Facebook: @SportsForumPodcast
Episode #9 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Talking Sports Issues With Ralph Nader – Nader is a consumer advocate and was named one of the “100 Most Influential Americans of the 20th Century” by Time magazine. He is the founder of League of Fans.
Episode #8 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: How Can We Save College Sports From Overcommercialization and Professionalization? – The guest is Dr. David Ridpath, a sports business professor and past president of the Drake Group
Episode #7 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Brain Trauma and CTE Risk in Sports With Dr. Ann McKee – Dr. McKee works in the field of neuropathology and has demonstrated that “mild” repetitive head trauma can provoke chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a devastating neurodegenerative disease.
Episode #6 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: The Need for Quality Physical Education in Our Schools is Greater Than Ever – The guest is Clayton Ellis, one of our nation’s leading advocates for getting our young people to be more physically active.
Episode #5 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Youth Sports with Positive Coaching Alliance Founder Jim Thompson – Thompson started Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA) in 1998 to help create a movement to transform the culture of youth sports from “win-at-all-costs” to a positive, character-building experience.
Media"How We Can Save Sports" author Ken Reed appears on Fox & Friends to explain how there's "too much adult in youth sports."
Ken Reed appears on Mornings with Gail from KFKA Radio in Colorado to discuss bad parenting in youth athletics.
“Should College Athletes Be Paid?” Ken Reed on The Morning Show from Wisconsin Public Radio
Ken Reed appears on KGNU Community Radio in Colorado (at 02:30) to discuss equality in sports and Title IX.
Ken Reed appears on the Ralph Nader Radio Hour (at 38:35) to discuss his book The Sports Reformers: Working to Make the World of Sports a Better Place, and to talk about some current sports issues.
Sports & Torts – Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans – at the American Museum of Tort Law
League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
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Ken Reed’s Author Page on Amazon