A few reflections about sports in and around Philadelphia.
The City of Philadelphia is only a part of the region, but within that part, the black population holds political power. That's definitely not true in the rest of the region. Discordances like this create problems until political evolution smooths them out.
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He doesn't live there any more, but for a long time Mohamed Ali the Prizefighter lived in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Although a celebrity, he made little local news in Philadelphia; comparatively few Philadelphia's even knew he was here. One day, my ten year-old son came in the house with a check endorsed by Ali for a hundred dollars or so. It had apparently flown out the window of a passing car, and my son was very excited to have the autograph of such a famous person. There was an ethical question here, since the check was apparently worth something to its owner, and should be returned. My suggestion was followed to mail the check back with a note suggesting that perhaps the Great Man would be willing to send his autograph as a reward. The check was accepted, but the letter was never answered, no autograph was forthcoming.
Since that time I remained a little irked that Mohamed Ali would be ungrateful for the favor, unwilling to take a little trouble to help me teach my children the right thing to do. That small, perhaps unwarranted, irritation was balanced by reports from a respected friend of mine who was his doctor. My friend always referred to him as "Champ" and never failed to praise him as a person. Perhaps the check incident had been some sort of accident, something I should overlook.
There were those news reports, of course, of his refusal to accept the draft, his public conversion to Muslim faith and adopting a frankly Muslim name at a time when the perception was that black Muslim had the significance of a prison cult, both anti-American and anti-Western Society, perhaps even racist. Surrounded by newsmedia as he was, he became a symbol of resistance to the Vietnam War and American foreign policy. It was hard to know what to think of him, but on balance it was unfavorable, even when he was reported to be incapacitated by crippling Parkinson's disease.
And then recently, The Constitution Center held a forum on the relationship between sports and the media. The point was repeatedly made that a sports career is brief, that financial success in it depends heavily on fast and early publicity. All publicity is good publicity, so outsiders who seek to publicize a political agenda can often put their words into the mouths of eager kids who are being privately urged to grab publicity of any sort, any way they can. You tell me what to say; I'll say it. Make me sound clever and serious; I'll agree to your words.
It thus happened that a reporter who had been covering Mohamed Ali for 25 years and knew him well was able to say he was certain the Champ had never had a political thought in his life. Having been pressured by others into making political noises for celebrity purposes, and perhaps under some intimidation by acquaintances, he finally rebelled against the whole scene. Respect for a man I had never met finally welled up in me when I thus saw his famous quotation to the press in a new context: " I don't have to be -- what you want me to be."
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