It should be enough that Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III is the most exciting athlete to enter professional sports since Lionel Messi and has restored the thrill of the possible to our football-obsessed community in Washington, DC. It should be enough at this moment to learn that RGIII is focused solely upon rehabilitating his knee, torn to shreds in last year’s playoffs. But the Heisman Trophy winner, who also found time in college to graduate from Baylor with a degree in political science and a 3.67 GPA, has clearly committed this off-season to exercising his mind as well. According to his running Twitter commentary, RGIII spent Saturday at the museum that in my view is the Mecca of the intersection of sports and politics: the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky.
The Muhammad Ali Center is a remarkable testament to the courage of an athlete willing to take unpopular stands because of political principle. The fact that Ali took these stands at the height of his athletic powers, when he was between the ages of 22 and 26, clearly had an impact on Mr. Griffin. RGIII’s first tweet said simply that “seeing in depth what Ali did and who he was is so inspiring.” The quarterback then soaked in just how much Ali suffered for his unpopular stands against racism and the war in Vietnam and put himself in the Champ’s shoes. He wrote, “An athlete like Ali would get destroyed in today’s world even more than in his own time.” The social media–savvy RGIII then tweeted, “What Ali stood for and the way he expressed it from the boxing ring to the streets of everyday life would have him trending for weeks.” He then retweeted someone who wrote to him, “Ali transcended sports and sacrificed his most productive boxing years to stand for his beliefs. Name a modern athlete that would.”
I must say that it’s thrilling that Muhammad Ali still has such a strong effect on athletes born a decade after he last set foot in a boxing ring. It’s also quite a statement that Robert Griffin III, who comes from a proud military family, would pay tribute to the most famous war resister in human history. Yes, Ali’s radical stance in 1968 has been smoothed out for mass consumption. Yes, in today’s myriad Ali tributes, few quote him saying, “I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over…. The real enemy of my people is here.” But the museum, to its credit, does not engage in a whitewash. RGIII was confronted with the actuality of Ali’s ideas and was deeply in awe of his sacrifice.
Lastly, I would point out that in today’s age of social media, an athlete like Ali would get far more support than in 1964. Back then, a small cabal of hard-bitten sportswriters, who were conservative, calloused and Caucasian, dominated public commentary, and were deeply resentful of the man they called “the Louisville Lip.” Today, in addition to the hate, there would be a public outpouring of support, which would also shape the coverage. The trend-lines of Ali’s resistance would have ample amplification.
There’s another side of this, however, that could not have escaped RGIII’s precise mind as he considered the concepts of sports and sacrifice: There is no way in heaven or hell Muhammad Ali, who is of African, Native American and Irish ancestry, would have ever accepted being called a Redskin. RGIII had to notice that the question of names and what we choose to call ourselves figures strongly at the Ali Center. You learn that Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., named not only after his own father but also a famous nineteenth-century white abolitionist. The political history of that name didn’t stop him from changing it upon joining the Nation of Islam. As he said, “Cassius Clay was my slave name. I don’t use it because I am no longer a slave.” The museum speaks about the boxers, reporters and even members of the draft board who called him “Clay” and how he responded with, at different times, “Say my name,” “What’s my name?” and, my personal favorite, “What’s my name, fool?”
Ali’s belief that a name was something far more precious than just a brand has found echoes across the culture in multiple forms, from Destiny’s Child, to Ravens Coach John Harbaugh’s Super Bowl victory speech to perhaps the most famous scene in the classic television show The Wire. Names matter. What you call yourself and what others choose to call you is a question of respect.
I wonder if RGIII took notice that the Muhammad Ali Center has a proud history of doing traveling exhibits with the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, including one called “IndiVisble: African-Native American Lives in the Americas.” The 2012 press release for the exhibit reads, “Prejudice, laws and twists of history have often divided them from others, yet African-Native American people were united in the struggle against slavery and dispossession, and then for self-determination and freedom. For African-Native Americans, their double heritage is truly indivisible.” I wonder if RGIII would ask himself how that heritage is served by the fans in feather headdresses and war paint, and the stained crimson face on the side of his helmet.
There was much made this week about a poll taken by ESPN, which showed that 79 percent of people in the US find nothing wrong with the Redskins name. RGIII—the athlete, the brand, the corporate pitchman—is someone who could look at that poll and think, “Great. Now I don’t need to say anything.” RGIII, the human being inspired by Muhammad Ali, has to look at those numbers and think, “Whether it’s 79 percent or 97 percent, right is right.” The Redskins name is racist as all hell, the creation of a segregationist owner and only possible because the people being insulted were subject to genocide: thinning their ranks, political power and voice. It’s a name RGIII’s boss Dan Snyder will only defend in the most controlled of public settings. It’s a name that Muhammad Ali would have hated because it’s a damn disgrace.
At the end of his Twitter commentary about The Champ, Robert Griffin III wrote, “The Ali Center confirmed my belief that although we, as people around this world, are different, we can all help & learn from each other.” He’s correct. But a precondition of helping and learning from one another is respect. RGIII is under no obligation to say anything about the Redskins name. But if he learned nothing else from the Muhammad Ali Center, it should be that sometimes you just have to speak out no matter the risk, no matter the trends or trend-lines.
It’s a little known part of The Champ’s history, but In 1978, Muhammad Ali joined Buffy St. Marie, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Stevie Wonder and Richie Havens (who has just left us) to rally at the end of the Longest Walk, a 3,600-mile protest march from San Francisco to Washington, DC, in the name of Native American self-determination. That was Muhammad Ali. He was nobody’s Redskin.