The activist athlete

Muhammad Ali at his home in Cherry Hill in 1971.
Muhammad Ali at his home in Cherry Hill in 1971. (Associated Press)
Posted: September 14, 2012

By Arthur Caplan

When I was a kid growing up in the suburbs of Boston in the late 1960s, I had little firsthand contact with minorities. But I knew a lot about one African American man who kept showing up on our new color television and in the sports pages that I devoured every day: Muhammad Ali.

Due to chronic illness, Ali can't speak as eloquently as he once did. But that doesn't mean he hasn't been heard.

During my youth, there was no more prominent athlete than Ali. His every deed and word - and there were plenty of them - was news. And no news was bigger than when he joined the controversial Nation of Islam, in 1964, and, three years later, invoked his religious beliefs in refusing to be drafted for the war in Vietnam.

The Department of Justice rejected Ali's claim, and after he failed to step forward at his draft physical, he was found guilty of evasion. He was arrested, fined, stripped of his passport and heavyweight title, and denied a license to box professionally.

When I was drafted four years later, I thought long and hard about what Ali had done. I decided that I had to report because I and my family had enjoyed the benefits of being citizens of the United States. But because of Ali, I was also keenly aware that not all Americans did or should feel that way.

Steadfast fighter

Over the years since, Ali has remained a figure of interest and inspiration to me. Despite the burden Parkinson's disease has imposed on him, he has remained a steadfast fighter for civil and human rights. He has put himself on the line and used his celebrity to advance a range of causes, seeking the freedom of hostages in different nations, providing meals to the hungry, and speaking out for needy children, cross-cultural understanding, interfaith relations, and the disabled.

I undoubtedly pursued a career in ethics partly because of the issues Ali forced me to think about. His example also led me to believe that every athlete who has attained such celebrity has a duty to try to leverage it for those who are less fortunate.

Not all athletes agree that their success creates an obligation to venture into the broader social arena. And I don't mean that athletes have to be paragons of moral virtue. But I do think they should get involved in bigger issues than whether or not to run out an easy pop fly.

Role models

Another of my favorite athletes, the former Philadelphia basketball star and current analyst Charles Barkley, is a great example of an athlete who has dealt with social issues. He once famously said, "A million guys can dunk a basketball in jail; should they be role models?" As Ali has done throughout his life, Barkley was honoring the obligation I am talking about by discouraging young people from idolizing athletes just because they possess rare physical skills, expecting some guy who can "box out" to serve as a worthy role model.

There are plenty of athletes who simply take the money and run to a golf course, racetrack, yacht, or casino. Ali, however, has shown throughout his life that sports celebrity can be used to advance human good. He has been challenging, pushing, provoking, and demanding since he got the world's attention by winning a gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome.

Today's celebrity sports figures could learn a lot from him. Though Muhammad Ali does not speak as well as he once did, he has said more that's worth listening to than any other athlete in American history.

Arthur Caplan is the head of medical ethics at New York University's Langone Medical Center. He is scheduled to moderate a panel discussion titled "Sport, Competition, and Social Justice" at noon today at the National Constitution Center as part of the Liberty Medal celebration honoring Muhammad Ali. Featured panelists include Laila Ali, Lonnie Ali, Susan Francia, and Claressa Shields. For tickets, call 215-409-6795 or e-mail

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