“Float like a butterfly; sting like a bee.
These poetic words were once again brought to my attention on Jun. 3, 2016 when Muhammad Ali, an American boxing champion and icon, died at the age of 74. As admirers celebrated Ali’s varied accomplishments, I was called to reflect on the positive effects of athletics and the declining rates of participation in organized sports in North America.
Although estimates regarding the number of youth involved in sports vary, a number of surveys indicate that many, as many as 81.6 million, Americans are physically inactive. According to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, only 26.9% of children aged 6 to 12 are active three times a week in any type of sporting activity. While this lack of physical activity is perhaps unsurprising for a country with one of the highest childhood obesity rates in the world, it reveals a larger issue of growing social and economic disparity amongst the American people. The correlation between level of education or total household income and sports participation, suggests that children from upper-middle class families are more likely to be involved in athletics than those of a lower class or a racial minority. As sports have been linked to improved life satisfaction, higher grades, larger social capital, and greater involvement in volunteer work, the need to re-assess equitable access to athletics is apparent.
Organized sports offer youth the opportunity to develop a sense of achievement and self-confidence, while instilling invaluable skills of perseverance, work ethic, and cooperation. Youth who participate in sports, develop a greater appreciation for diversity, exhibit higher levels of civic engagement, and are more likely to register to vote or follow the news than their inactive peers, indicating that sports may play an important role in fostering peaceful relations between neighbours. As a 2007 study published in Parks and Recreation suggests, athletics may serve a useful purpose in international peacebuilding, as “youth and youth sport leaders play vital roles in transforming dangerous and violent conflict situations associated with terrorism across the world.”
There is perhaps no better example of the capacity of sports to act as a gateway for social change than the life of Muhammad Ali: the man who was both butterfly and bee; athlete and activist. His Olympic gold medal, three heavyweight titles, and induction into the United States Olympic Hall of Fame pale in comparison to the mark he left on the American public. To Ali, “boxing was just a means to introduce me to the world.” The determination of the man who wouldn’t back down in the ring revealed itself in his political life, as he refused to be drafted for the Vietnam War and became a controversial symbol for the anti-war movement. He used the celebrity gained from his professional athletic career as a force for social change, famously travelling to Iraq in 1990 on a mission to secure the safety and freedom of 15 Americans held hostage by Saddam Hussein before the Gulf War. After retirement, he worked to provide food and medical supplies to children, hospitals, and orphanages in Africa and Asia as a United Nations messenger for peace.
He sought publicity for his athletic achievements, but also to help others for the greater good, bringing the same courage and determination he used in boxing to his life as an activist. A devout Muslim and adherent of Sunni Islam, Ali was outspoken about his faith and continued to speak about the peaceful nature of his religion as anti-Islamic sentiment grew in the United States. Last December, when Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump proposed a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” after the terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut, Ali responded by asking Trump and other American politicians “to bring understanding about the religion of Islam and clarify that these misguided murders have perverted people’s views on what Islam really is”. He went on to say, “I am a Muslim and there is nothing Islamic about killing people in Paris, San Bernardino, or anywhere else in the world”. Until his last, Ali was a force for peace and a fighter for religious liberty and equal rights.
Following his death, I began to write about Ali as an athlete and a truly fearless man. I felt his life and his persistence both within and outside of athletics ought to be an encouragement and an inspiration for today’s youth. After all, the discipline and drive Ali honed through boxing enabled him to become a true force for peace, two things today’s youth desperately need more of. But it seems that my reflections on Ali have shifted in light of recent events; I find myself now focusing less on the man himself and more on the message he attempted to convey, his belief that “service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth”.
On Jun. 12, 2016, nine days after Ali passed away, 29-year-old Omar Mateen opened fire at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, fatally killing 49 people in the name of the Sunni jihadist Islamic State. Although the world has come together to show its unwavering support, it remains impossible to articulate the pain of this tragedy, impossible to fathom the grief felt by the victims and their families. The global and federal response must address a number of ongoing issues within the United States, including the struggle with gun-control reform, and the continued discrimination and hate faced by members of the LGBTQ+ community. The US, the land of freedom, must continue its efforts to achieve true freedom and equality in the face of widespread prejudice.
The natural response to such an act of terrorism and hatred is a feeling of even greater hatred, intolerance, and fear. It is natural in a time such as this to be afraid, to want to hold one’s family all that much closer, to suddenly be so aware of how fragile life is. It is natural to feel anger, to feel the injustice of this hate crime and want to respond, but it is essential to be weary that we do not allow these extremist attacks to further the culture of Islamophobia in America.
As Trump continues to affirm the policy of a ban on Muslims he first introduced in the fall, further asserting that Mateen was one of thousands who were cheering during 9/11, I cannot help but think again of Ali. Following the attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001 Ali spoke publicly, saying, “Islam is a religion of peace. Islam does not promote terrorism or the killing of people…Hatred caused this tragedy and adding to the hatred that already exists in the world will not help. Instead, we should try to understand each other better.” It is now, in the aftermath of the tragic events in Orlando, that Ali’s words ring painfully true.
Throughout his lifetime, Ali was a champion of civil rights and freedoms, an advocate for religious liberty. As we struggle to move forward after such an act of violence, we must not forget that these rights, these freedoms, apply equally to everyone—we cannot forget that beneath our religion, our race, and our sexuality, we are first and foremost human beings. To determine that hundreds of people in a closed room do not have the right to live is to see them as objects and to see them as less than human. The fight for equality and freedom that characterized Ali’s generation continues to impart its urgency today. Indeed, it seems there is an abundance of hatred in this world.
Rather than focusing on this hatred, we must instead uphold acts of love. We must draw courage from the hundreds of individuals who donated blood in Florida immediately following the attacks, or the vigils conducted throughout the world in solidarity and support for the LGBTQ community. We must think about how we are to best serve others, and work towards creating an equal future. It matters that we draw upon the strength and fearlessness of individuals like Ali, and take up the fight for justice with the same vitality and determination. And if we must fight, we must emulate “The Greatest”—a man who fought only with his words or a pair of red Everlast gloves.