When politics enter the playing field

Heavyweights who packed a political punch: Ali-Frazier I in 1971 was more than just a fight, it was a metaphor for an era. Muhammad Ali was the choice of the counterculture, while Joe Frazier was the favorite of the "silent majority."
Heavyweights who packed a political punch: Ali-Frazier I in 1971 was more than just a fight, it was a metaphor for an era. Muhammad Ali was the choice of the counterculture, while Joe Frazier was the favorite of the "silent majority." (AP)
Posted: April 14, 2014

Among the revelations in Betty Medsger's powerful new book, The Burglary, is the story of how local antiwar activists shrewdly selected March 8, 1971, for their historic break-in at an FBI office in Media.

That was the night of the "Fight of the Century," the first Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier meeting, and the burglars understood that, to paraphrase a popular protest refrain from the turbulent era, the whole world would be watching.

Even though Americans who wanted to watch live had to pay to do so at closed-circuit venues, Ali-Frazier still attracted 300 million viewers worldwide, the largest TV audience ever at the time, more than had watched the 1969 moon landing.

The burglary, not surprisingly, went off perfectly.

What instigated the near-universal interest in the heavyweight title fight was that, maybe more than any sporting event in history, it was a political referendum.

People forget the intensity of opposing passions in 1971. No one was neutral. Friends and families were bitterly divided. If you supported the Vietnam War, you supported Frazier. And if you opposed it, you were in the corner of Ali, who had forfeited his title for refusing military induction in 1967.

Forty-three years later, we again live in a politically polarized nation. Left and right, abetted now by technology, inhabit gated intellectual communities.

But the one place - perhaps the last place - where we continue to unite, where differences dissipate, is the sports world.

That wasn't so in 1971.

So powerfully discordant were the civil-rights struggle; changing cultural attitudes; and, most especially, the war in Vietnam that, as with Ali-Frazier, our troubles leached into the places where we usually retreated to avoid them: our games.

Athletes, fans, sports columnists, everyone was expected to pick a side.

And while the major sports organizations were overtly conservative institutions, quick to discourage any hint of dissent, it was easy to tell the difference. Though few athletes, then largely powerless, were courageous enough to speak or act out publicly against the war, there were ways for them to communicate their positions.

If they were rebellious enough to wear their hair long or sport mustaches, they almost certainly were antiwar. A crew-cut, on the other hand, was as telling a sign of support as a flag pin.

The same was true in the stands, where hippies and hard hats frequently battled as intensely as the competitors on the field. Occasionally, a protest sign would appear at games, and invariably supporters of the war would attempt to tear it down.

When, for example, at the 1969 Army-Navy Game in South Philadelphia, some of the future Media burglars unfurled a banner that read, "Beat Army. Beat Navy. Join the Resistance," a riot nearly ensued.

Maybe the most famous and dramatic juxtaposition of sports and politics came at the 1968 Summer Olympics when sprinters Tommy Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists during a medals ceremony - and were quickly expelled from the Games.

Even UCLA coach John Wooden's rigid strictures couldn't corral Bill Walton's antiestablishment sentiments. Walton's red hair remained neatly trimmed while he was with the Bruins, but his political views couldn't be so easily controlled. In 1972, the all-American center was arrested during a campus antiwar protest.

"Bill," Wooden told him after posting bail for his star, "I know you feel very strongly about this, but I just don't think that you getting arrested and taking part in a demonstration is what it's all about."

That was the conventional wisdom in sports.

Following the 1968 assassination of presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, whose campaign was built on opposition to the war, baseball went ahead with its schedule. When two Astros - Rusty Staub and Bob Aspromonte - refused to play, they were fined.

The Cincinnati Reds voted on whether to play, and it came out 12-12 with one abstention. Feisty manager Dave Bristol said he'd play the game even if he had only 12 men. Angry Reds management demanded a second ballot, and, when the tally was 13-12 in favor, the game went on.

Cincinnati's Milt Pappas, one of the 12 dissenters, wasn't happy about having to pitch that day and said so afterward. Three days later he was traded to Atlanta.

Game 4 of the 1969 World Series took place on the same day as the massive Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam was being held in Washington. Though New York City Mayor John Lindsey had ordered flags be flown at half staff, commissioner Bowie Kuhn demanded Shea Stadium's flag not be lowered, a decision that inflamed debate.

The conflicts raged among the media as well.

Tom Seaver was the winning pitcher in that 1969 Series game. But when his photo appeared on some antiwar literature, conservative New York Daily News columnist Dick Young savaged the Mets star. Seaver, meanwhile, was defended by Young's liberal nemesis, the equally outrageous broadcaster Howard Cosell.

It was clashing politics as much as personalities that made those two mortal enemies. Among other things, Young called Cosell "Howie the Shill." Cosell, in turn, referred to the columnist as "a right-wing cultural illiterate."

So what's changed?

Well, absent a military draft, Iraq and Afghanistan haven't had the same widespread sting as Vietnam. More significant, today's athletes earn so much money they're not likely to risk it by taking potentially unpopular political stands.

"You're talking about a very limited window where athletes can earn the majority of money that they're going to make over the course of their lives," sports journalist Dave Zirin told NPR last year. "[Political speech] becomes something that actually is very dangerous, whether for keeping their job in the league, or keeping sponsors. You do run the risk of finding yourself all of a sudden out of a job."

Money or principle?

It's an easy decision for athletes in 2014.

Just as it was for the ringside judges when Frazier defeated Ali, a unanimous verdict that briefly rendered the antiwar movement as silent as Media on the memorable night of March 8, 1971.


ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

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