Muhammad Ali delighted and excited the men in my life with his amazing skills in the ring, but his decision to resist the draft during the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector angered them and provoked a lot of heated arguments across a generation.
To me and my cousins and friends, he was a hero -- as a prizefighter and as a man of high principle.
His punch was convincing, so was his stand on the war. “I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” he famously said in 1966, and that simple declaration focused the nation’s attention on the war in southeast Asia and started, for sports fans not yet thinking about it, a great and bitter debate on why American troops were fighting that war.
Many of the men in my life were veterans of both World War II and the Korean War. To them, Ali’s stance was worthy of nothing but scorn. They reminded their sons and nephews that other great athletes -- Ted Williams, for one -- had given up several years of their professional sports careers to serve the country in the military, insisting that no U.S. citizen deserved special treatment when it came to the draft.
In the mid-1960s, with U.S. involvement in the war escalating and Americans dying in increasing numbers, Ali stood at the center of one of the most divisive struggles in the nation’s history. He was willing to go to prison for his stance.
His decision to resist the draft cost him almost four years of boxing in his prime. In 1967, he was stripped of his heavyweight title by the World Boxing Association and the New York State Athletic Commission suspended his license to fight.
Ali appealed his conviction and that process took years. It wasn’t until 1971 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case, finding that the local draft board had erred in denying Ali conscientious objector status. This month marks 45 years since his conviction was overturned.
And he came back and continued his remarkable career in the ring.
As my Sun colleague Mike Preston points out in his piece on the champ’s passing today, Ali showed the country that leadership meant more than just being celebrated for accomplishments in your chosen field, whether it was boxing or running a business. Sports is entertainment, a diversion from the hard realities of modern life. Those realities require hard thinking and deliberation. Being a full-fledged citizen means being vigilant, paying attention to what the government does in your name, for better or worse, and standing up for what you believe is right.
As the years passed, the men in my life softened their views of Ali. Most of them came to respect and even love him. Those of us who grew up during the Ali era will always remember his fights with Joe Frazier and George Foreman as well as his fight with the government over Vietnam and, right there next to it, his commitment to civil rights.
One of the lasting images of Ali is from the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta and the opening ceremonies -- the champ, his left hand shaking and body trembling from Parkinson's disease, atop that high stadium ramp, awash in light, holding the Olympic flame, as the crowd cheered and cried for one of its greatest fighters and one of its greatest citizens.