Stephen Tignor | Longreads | August 2016 | 22 minutes (5,613 words)
The fifth edition of the ESPY Awards, held in 1997 at Radio City Music Hall in New York, was a celebration of the African-American athlete. Michael Johnson won Best Male Athlete, Tiger Woods and Desmond Howard received honors, black celebrities were on hand to pay tribute to Jackie Robinson, and Ray Charles performed.
But the loudest ovation was reserved for Muhammad Ali. The former heavyweight champion was presented with the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage, which for more than two decades has been given to a recipient who “reflect[s] the spirit of Arthur Ashe, possessing strength in the face of adversity, courage in the face of peril, and the willingness to stand up for their beliefs no matter what the cost.”
It was the evening’s melancholy high point. The spirits of Ashe and Ali were alive in the room. Yet the voices of these two heroes of the 1960s and ’70s could no longer be heard. The tennis player had died four years earlier, at age 49, of complications from AIDS. The boxer was only 55, but Parkinson’s disease had muted this most verbal of athletes. The man who introduced Ali at the ESPYs, Sidney Poitier, spoke for many of his generation when he said, “The first thing I remember is his voice.” But on this night, Ali could muster just two words for the audience: “Thank you.”
It would be hard to imagine two people, let alone two sportsmen of the same era, whose personalities diverged as much as theirs did. Ashe was cautious and cerebral, Ali brash and outrageous. Ashe excelled in a genteel sport, Ali in a brutal one. Ali refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War; Ashe was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Ali joined the separatist Nation of Islam and befriended Malcolm X; Ashe dedicated his life to the cause of Martin Luther King and integration. If we think of Ali by his given name, Cassius Clay, even their surnames—Clay and Ashe—represent opposing states of matter.
Yet it was fitting that they should be honored together on a night of African-American celebration. During the same tumultuous period, they had proved what a powerful impact engaged athletes can have on the world. Ashe had once said of Ali, “He was largely responsible for it becoming an expected part of a black athlete’s responsibility to get involved.” Ashe was one of those who had followed Ali’s lead. Read more…