Thursday, June 2, 2011

Shaquille and Ali

Recently Shaquille O'Neal retired from professional basketball and in thinking about his career, I can't help but consider him the "Muhammad Ali" of his time. 

Ali and O'Neal are both larger-than-life professional athletes, but beyond that they both arrived in the spotlight as cocky and some would say, threatening figures only to later evolve into respected and well-admired public personalities. They both began to spend time involved in the media outside the sports world and were in some sense informal ambassadors to various groups.

When he was Cassius Clay, Ali was seen as a very brash and mouthy kid (and to many people, his race was another strike against him). He was clearly good at his game but he lacked the deference and humility that so many Americans came to admire in earlier athletic heroes like DiMaggio or Joe Louis. He carried on, calling himself, "pretty" and "the greatest of all time" and right after he beat Sonny Liston he crowed and strutted around the ring calling even more attention to himself.

In those days most Americans didn't go for that kind of thing, nor did they like it when he became a Muslim, changed his name and refused to appear for the draft. If there was an "approval rating" for celebrities, I suppose his would have been down about 5% in 1968 or so. But soon he began to appear on mainstream television outside the boxing ring. He showed up on Johnny Carson or the Sonny and Cher show and places like that showing the public that he can behave himself. He also made liberal fun of Howard Cosell right to his face and many Americans seemed to enjoy that. So  we all grew to love him and lost our fear and loathing, choosing rather to root for him even well after he retired. Most of us found out that Vietnam was a waste of lives and money and in truth nobody could blame Ali anymore for refusing to participate. [It reminds me of John Elway, the Stanford University quarterback who refused to play for the Baltimore Colts, who drafted him. Eventually even Baltimoreans couldn't blame him for refusing to join the team which  we all came to realize was toxic.]

Thirty years after Cassius Clay, Shaquille O'Neal arrived on the public scene and also did a few things as a young man that were cocky and seen as threatening. He had a tattoo, for example while in college. This was in the early 1990s and of course Dennis Rodman and maybe a few others had tattoos, but O'Neal was an amateur at the time and what's more, he used a symbol (the Superman symbol) that many whites might have felt in a way "belonged" to them. They'd certainly never seen a black man adopting that symbol that to many had previously been reserved for the white world. The original Superman on television was lily white and blacks likely never appeared on the show. Undoubtedly many whites were aghast that this big, black guy from Texas or Louisiana or wherever it was, would pretend to be Superman, the humble, polite crime fighter.

In addition to the tattoo, O'Neal dropped out of LSU to play professional basketball. He certainly wasn't the first one to do it, but he was only a sophomore whereas most others before him had left after their third year. Just ten years earlier, Michael Jordan won the NCAA Men's title but stayed on at UNC to play for two more years. Those were different times.

What's more, O'Neal launched a career as a rap music artist just after leaving LSU. It was brief and didn't go anywhere, but rap certainly didn't receive the tolerance back then that it does today;  many felt--and some still feel--that rap is associated with criminals and sex and drugs (more so than good 'ol Rock and Roll). The general public's reaction to rap music then is eerily similar to many people's attitudes towards Islam both in Clay's time and today: that is, it is a threat to established order.

Of course O'Neal is a very well-liked man today. He has expressed a desire to work for law enforcement. He appeared as a guest conductor

at the Boston Symphony last Christmas and by all accounts he was a real crowd-pleaser.

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