PITTSFIELD >> Professional sports have become such a big business, and its star players make so much money than I can't imagine any current participant walking away from a sport during the prime of their career because of a religious belief, or due to the courage of their convictions.
In other words, what Muhammad Ali did in 1967 isn't likely to ever happen again. At the height of his career, Ali walked away from boxing and relinquished his world heavyweight title because he declined to be inducted into the armed forces. He did so because the Vietnam War offended his religious beliefs as a Muslim and the racial bigotry he experienced as a black man in this country.
Ali's decision created an incredible amount of controversy, in a country that was already wrestling with its role in Vietnam. And it didn't come without consequences. Ali lost three years in the prime of his career before he was able to return to boxing in 1970.
I remember now when it happened, but had pretty much forgotten about it until Ali's death on June 3. Many people originally thought his decision was a stunt, but as we grew to know more about this man time changed our perception of what he did. In retrospect, what Ali did took enormous courage, and shows how seriously he took his convictions and his adopted religion.
Anyone who doubted Ali's sincerity at the time only has to look at his life after boxing when he continued to adhere to his religious beliefs and the work he did paving the way for others of his race — — to quote Harry Belafonte, that would be the human race — while dealing with the physical debilitation that he incurred from Parkinson's Disease. Religion wasn't just talk with Ali, it was a major part of his life. In the avalanche of remembrances about Ali that have come since his death, this is the part of him that I remember the most.
Principal mattered to the man more than prosperity did. I can't think of any modern day athlete who would do such a thing.
The only incident involving a pro athlete that even comes close was when Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax refused to pitch on Yom Kippur the holiest day of the Jewish religion, when the date coincided with Game 1 of the 1965 World Series. Koufax spent the day at a synagogue not a ballpark. A principled stand, to be sure, but it was only one game, not three years.
Don't get me wrong there are other athletes today who do things to help others and advance causes they believe in. But to my recollection, none of them have had to pay the price that Ali did at a time when just being a black man in a white man's world was hard enough.
As a close friend recently reminded me, Ali traversed the chasm of Olympic hero to black man in America by standing up for himself and making the world take notice. What Ali did took courage and guts. He stood up for what he believed. It's hard to tell what modern day athletes stand for. None of them have demonstrated the courage to do what Ali did. He will always be "the greatest."
Tony Dobrowolski is the business editor of The Berkshire Eagle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.