As the VHA goes about providing “equitable relief” to the 24,000 veterans who were denied proper TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) screening, VHA clinical social workers should be given a major role in providing treatment—even if they have to fight for it. It is the least that can be done for our wounded warriors, the combat-zone veterans of this country’s recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And if the true role of the NFL in funding NIH research into TBI is to be understood, perhaps the media needs to ignore NFL spokespersons and instead seek out Dr. Francis Collins, head of the NIH (National Institutes of Health), who stood up to the NFL recently.
Such self-assertion would honor the memory of the young Muhammad Ali, the champion of boxing and of human rights, whose fighting spirit should inspire us all in the face of corruption, neglect, and injustice.
As the new heavyweight champ, Ali came forward in 1965 to take the blows of American society. Newly self-renamed Muhammad Ali, he infuriated much of white America. He held “their” boxing title, and “their” Olympic gold medal, and they felt that he had betrayed them by suddenly transforming from a sports hero into an actual man, with controversial opinions—a proud Muslim and champion of Black Power. They could not forgive him.
He became a fighter in the culture wars, speaking out for his causes and winning boxing matches too—notably the 1965 rematch against Liston held in Maine. The media kept calling him Clay, and the World Boxing Association stripped him of his title for joining the Nation of Islam. Early in 1966, when he was drafted, Ali declined induction, citing his religious beliefs. J. Edgar Hoover unleashed the FBI hounds. The sportswriters vilified him. He kept boxing, and kept winning, usually defending his title in venues outside of the U. S.
Early in 1967 Ali, 25, was arrested for draft-dodging, which gave great satisfaction to his many detractors—but he was released on bail as his case headed into federal court. He was not intimidated: he claimed solidarity with the Vietnamese as an oppressed people, not unlike American blacks—“I ain’t got nothing against no Viet Cong,” he said. “No Viet Cong never called me nigger.” Every single state in America revoked his license to box, and starting in March, 1967, The Champ was prevented from earning a living in the ring.
He traveled the globe and spoke at American colleges, a loud voice of conscience and dissent, for three years. He courted controversy as President Nixon escalated the war and encouraged the FBI to target “black revolutionaries.” Finally, the Ali case came before the U. S. Supreme Court, which ruled that he had been right all along in claiming conscientious objector status. The Champ had won again—in October, 1970, he was “freed” to resume his life as a boxer, reliant on the very forces that had been so quick to take from him by fiat and intolerance what no one could take from him in the ring.
For years he kept fighting, winning back the title, then losing, then winning it again, on and on, meting out and absorbing heavy punishment. In 1979 he became champion for the fourth time; but his powers had waned, and he was suffering from tremors. Cleared to fight, he did so into 1981, and retired after two bad losses. He had proved himself to be perhaps the greatest heavyweight boxer of the 20th century. To an extent, he had also reclaimed the regard of the American public. But it came at a terrible price.
Early in 1983 a CAT scan confirmed what they’d been saying down at the gym, that Ali was “punch drunk”—a disorder as old as boxing itself, now known as CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy). Blows to the head cause the rupture of small blood vessels, which, in healing, create scars that block neural pathways and cause a slow-down of the body’s motor functions.
Suddenly, the famous quipster and proclaimer was mumbling; the Greatest was now dependent on others. This is what boxing and CTE brain injury had done to The Champ. And suddenly this person, a palsied, silenced shadow of himself, was the acceptable hero that he had never sought to be. As completely as America and the media had rejected the young Ali—for giving himself a name and an identity, for asserting his rights and those of other African-Americans—that’s how much America and the media came to embrace him in his debilitated dotage. I hope it was an embrace of love and admiration, and not of forgiveness. In my opinion, there was nothing to forgive.
If clinical social workers really want to honor Ali’s memory, let’s help people to understand the sources of brain injury, and to support research for the treatment of CTE, especially as it affects those who have been serving in combat zones in defense of our country. Athletes playing violent sports now have a pretty good idea of the risks they run. But those who serve their country in the military are a different class of hero, and the many in their ranks who have incurred brain injuries—or even may have incurred them—and who suffer from PTSD and other forms of behavioral health disorders—deserve to receive the best and most timely forms of care. The VHA’s 12,000 clinical social workers can do a lot to make it happen.