“I shook up the world,” Cassius Clay yelled into a microphone on the night of February 25, 1964, moments after he knocked out heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. It was the first of three times the man who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali would claim the heavyweight crown, and he retired two decades later as the greatest champion in boxing history.
Ali’s contributions to boxing are innumerable. But Ali’s story isn’t fully told by what he did inside the ring, because he also shook up the world outside of it. Ali went to prison for avoiding the Vietnam War draft in 1967, sacrificing his title in the process because he didn’t believe in the war his country was fighting. His activism didn’t end there: he was an outspoken critic of America’s racial inequality, a member of the Nation of Islam, a punch in the face not just to the world of sports but to the entire American establishment as well.
Ali wasn’t alone, in his era or otherwise. In 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos held black-gloved fists over their heads at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. At the same time, Billie Jean King was leading the feminist movement through sports, pushing for equal pay and equal recognition in tennis. Curt Flood was challenging baseball’s reserve clause.
Activism against sport and societal injustices continue today, through people like Jason Collins and Brittney Griner, Ed O’Bannon and the 4,000 football players suing the league over concussions and brain injuries. Athletes from the youth level to the pros are fighting for a fair shot to play, a chance to be open about who they are, a fair piece of the economic pie, and a voice in the system. They’re carrying on the legacies of people like Ali and Robinson, Flood and King.
The issues facing sports today parallel many of the issues that face broader society. Athletes are fighting for gender, sexual, and racial equality, for labor rights, for health care, and better opportunities. And many of those issues directly affect fans too, whether through equal access and treatment or because teams are bilking them out of public money to pay for sparkling new stadiums.
Sports are often a reflection of broader society, and often an agent for social change within that society. Labor fights in sports look like labor fights outside of them; the push for gender and sexual equality in sports mirrors those same pushes in society as a whole. We often look at sports as simply the games we play, we tally the points and declare a winner. Plenty of times, that’s all sports are. Plenty of others, the games we play mean so much more. They are markers of our culture and our way of life — and often an agent to change it for the better.
That’s what I’ve been covering for the last year on Alyssa’s site, and it’s what I will cover here too. We’ll dive into the stories of the day, mixing original reporting and analysis to examine the issues that often exist below the surface: the business, the backstories, and all of the issues in sports that matter not just on the field but off it as well.