Muhammad Ali died on June 3 of septic shock, after enduring the effects of severe brain injury for 35 years. If it was “a fight” with his disease, it was certainly not a fair one. Nor was it Parkinson’s Disease that afflicted him, although that’s how it has been framed—Ali actually suffered from something called Parkinson’s Syndrome, caused by TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury). As his doctor pointed out in 1987, Ali’s problems were caused by “injuries to the brain from fighting”. In covering Ali’s long demise and now his death, the media has cited “Parkinson’s Disease”, as if he had somehow randomly contracted a disease rather than incurred one through the boxing career that had entertained so many for so long. It seems a regrettable case of public denial, in which we, as fans and consumers (just as in the case of NFL football), would prefer to see Ali as a victim of fate rather than admit to complicity in the tragic human consequences of the spectacles that are offered up for our enjoyment.
I have been thinking about Ali, and brain injury, in light of the recent revelation that the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) had failed in 2007-2015 to provide proper screening for TBI/CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) to fully 24,000 eligible veterans—a failure that VA Secretary McDonald acknowledged last week, while announcing that the VA is providing them immediate “equitable relief.” Let us hope that he will involve the VA’s clinical social workers in these efforts. Many have expressed outrage at the neglect of so many veterans over so long a time, and also at the recent revelation that the National Football League (NFL) attempted to corrupt the process by which federal funds are awarded for researching TBI/CTE. Among young Americans, brain injury is the leading cause of death and debility. CTE, the condition afflicting NFL football players, is the form of brain degeneration that affects many boxers, including, as it turned out, Muhammad Ali.
Much as I admired him in recent decades, my Ali was not that benign shaky figure appearing at various events, a beloved media favorite doing his best to smile and speak, the winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the immortal lighter of the Olympic Flame.
My Ali was an outspoken black athlete from Louisville who won the Olympic gold medal at 18 and stood up for himself against the expectations of 1960s mainstream America, for Black Power and against the Vietnam War. His was an astonishing presence on the American scene, and for some of us he showed the way to live a life of principle, even in the glare of the limelight, even when oppressed by the full power of government and officialdom.
In his 20th professional fight, the 22-year Louisville slugger amazed the oddsmakers and thrilled the public by defeating Sonny Liston to become the professional boxing Heavyweight Champ. Overnight, we had a very young, exuberant, self-styled King of The World. Handsome, funny, charismatic, he was already a media darling and could have played the lucrative game of celebrity, giving mainstream America an acceptable black Champion suitable for endorsements and exploitation of all sorts, as long as he showed proper deference to the real king-makers.
But Clay was his own king, even at 22, and he had his own thoughts about America, and the life that he had led and the life he wanted to lead. Suddenly, he stood before us, even bigger than before, as Muhammad Ali—“Cassius Clay was my slave name!” he told us, while announcing that he had joined the radical, separatist Nation of Islam. America was not ready for this—he was being taken away from us, and the media tended to portray him as a tool used by virulent black nationalists. Cassius Clay, American Olympian, was supposed to be Cassius the Champ, a funny and triumphant man-child, brash and mouthy, even edgy, a sort of cartoonish folk hero, and not a real man who renounced his name and his religion, and required us to accept him in a new and scary context.
How would America get its Cassius Clay back? Or would Muhammad Ali take America forward to some new understandings?
Part 1 of 2.