Wednesday, June 15, 2016


              Muhammad Ali died a fortnight ago, at age 74, and the response was overwhelming. He was hailed not only as a great athlete but as a great humanitarian as well. African-Americans, including those too young to have known him as a boxer, cited him as a role model both for his prowess and attitude. People of all races testified that the benign presence of his later years was an antidote to the fractious era in which we life.
              The outpouring was remarkable to someone my age (78) who can remember when Ali was regarded quite differently—as one whose braggadocio, quirky anti-Vietnam War stance and espousal of an overtly racist religious sect alienated and puzzled many. That all that appears to have been washed away testifies to his own evolution and to the healing powers of time. Shakespeare to the contrary notwithstanding, the good men do can live after them while the evil oft is interred with their bones. So let it be with Ali, we now say.

              But while one must swim upstream this month to suggest that the fighter was less than saintly, any real assessment of his life must be more complex.  The easiest part is its athletic component: as a boxer in his prime he fully lived up to his self-proclaimed title of “The Greatest.”  He might not have punched as hard as some heavyweights but most experts (and I) agree that his speed, grace, resilience and ring acumen were unsurpassed in his weight class. Indeed, the late Jimmy Jacobs, who owned the “Greatest Fights” archive, the world’s largest cache of boxing films dating from the 19th century, and who was Mike Tyson’s first manager, once told me he thought Ali was the fastest fighter ever, of any weight. That was no small feat for a tall man who performed at more than 200 pounds.

               Ali was only slightly less conspicuous outside the ring. Handsome (he’d say “pretty”), glib and charismatic, he attracted crowds wherever he went, and his playfulness was contagious, charming even the skeptical.  At the same time, his outspokenness and refusal to be patronized was startling for his era and set a standard for African-Americans that transcended sports.

              His refusal to be inducted into the military, assertedly on Muslim religious grounds, was puzzling because, then as now, Islam is not a pacific religion. Nonetheless, his stance must be regarded as courageous because it cost him far more than it did most others who followed that course. As a result of it he was stripped of his titles at his fighting peak and couldn’t get a match for 3 ½ years.

              Ali’s love of verse and one-liners, and gift for mimicry, caused him to be widely hailed as a wit. My full time sports-writing career began after his 1981 retirement from the ring, so I never spent time with him up close, but conversations with those who did revealed that many of his jokes were borrowed and repeated endlessly if they got a laugh. Still, they say, he was quick to size up his audiences, and his desire to entertain must be credited.

              But if Ali was smart he was not wise. His personal life was messy, including four marriages and three no-doubt-expensive divorces, and he left seven children by his wives and at least a couple more to duke it out over his estate.  His personal finances were equally chaotic; although his ring income has been estimated at more than $50 million (it would have been many times more in recent years) he was serially scammed by his handlers and had little put aside when his fighting days were done. The way I get it he lived in retirement mostly off latter-day endorsements and appearance fees. About all that remained of his ring income was a trust fund established for him by a group of businessmen in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, shortly after he turned pro in 1961.

              Worse was his management of his career, which lasted much too long. This is typical of athletes generally, including those engaged in his brutal sport, but in his case it had tragic consequences in the Parkinson’s disease and other ills that left him mute and palsied for the last 20 or so years of his life. That was an especially sad fate for one who had been so verbal and agile.

 If a Hollywood screen writer had called the shots Ali’s last fight would have been the one in which he evened the score with Joe Frazier in 1974 at the age of 32.  But needing the money, or seeing nothing better to do, he soldiered on. As he grew older he became easier to hit. Most of his 15 bouts after Frazier II were grueling affairs, 12 of them going 10 or more rounds. Boxers’ ages are better measured in rounds than in years, and those took a mighty toll.

I think that Ali’s influence on the greater world was strongest—and least fortunate—on our notions of sportsmanship, or how we regard winning, losing and competing. Sportsmanship always has been partly sham because no one enjoys losing and hard feelings often arise among competitors. But athletes’ treating opponents with respect cushions them all with the knowledge that sports needn’t be a zero-sum game and that when they lose they’ll receive such consideration in return.

Ali would have none of that. For him boxing wasn’t a test of skills within a confined space and agreed upon rules but psychological warfare that knew no bounds. Like a current presidential candidate he hung insulting nicknames on foes (the glowering Sonny Liston was “The Big, Ugly Bear”, the introverted Floyd Patterson was “The Rabbit,” the long-armed Frazier was “The Gorilla”), most of whom were black men like himself. He taunted them in and out of the ring and exulted in their demise. With his example to commend it, the trash talking, chest pounding and bicep flexing that today punctuates the smallest playing-field triumph took hold. It probably would have happened anyway but he gave it a kick start.

Ali toned down his act as he aged. In his 30s he left the black-separatist Nation of Islam to become a conventional Sunni Muslim, and his racial views moderated. In retirement his smile became permanent and all-encompassing. His humor took nondestructive turns. He loaned his name to and appeared on behalf of worthy causes.

 Because he could not speak in later life we don’t know how he felt about things, but he’d become so likable that we filled this blank slate with good thoughts and intentions.  That’s tribute enough for any man.


Wednesday, June 1, 2016


              When a sport's governing body assesses a violation of its rules it has two considerations. One is the impact of the violation on the character of the competition it oversees—in other words, the sport’s integrity. The other is how its ruling might affect business. It should come as no surprise that consideration No. 2 almost always prevails.
              In the U.S., Exhibit A in this regard regularly is found in the decisions of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which governs our college sports. Time and again serious institutional violations of its rules are punished by slaps on the wrist that cause no more than fleeting inconvenience to the perpetrators— one-year postseason bans, the loss of a scholarship or two, maybe the firing of a hapless assistant coach who has been designated as a scapegoat. The athletics ship of good ol’ Enormous U. is permitted to sail on, heedless of the damage left in its wake.
              The NCAA’s international counterpart is the International OIympic Committee, which runs the quadrennial Summer and Winter Games. It, too, can be counted upon to minimize offenses against its codes including corruption in its own ranks, treating them as fly specks on the magnificence of the spectacles it stages. The IOC’s official motto is “Citius, Altius, Fortius”—Latin for “Faster, Higher, Stronger”—but its real motto is “The Show Must Go On,” whatever squalor must be ignored to accomplish that end.

              But now the IOC faces its biggest judicial challenge yet as this August’s Summer Games in Rio approach. Russia, an international sports power, stands creditably accused of elevating the doping of its athletes to a state enterprise that already has altered numerous competitions.  If it chooses the obvious remedy—banning the Russkies—the IOC no doubt will put a dent in its event’s box-office appeal and, thus, its own coffers. Based on its past I’d put the odds on such a ruling at no better than even-money.

              Let’s be clear that the Russians have no corner on the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports. Many athletes from many lands have done it, some of them such prominent Americans as Marion Jones and Lance Armstrong. Generally speaking, doping is a smart move because well-advised dopers usually are ahead of the testers technologically. Rewards are immediate while penalties come down the road, if at all. Even jocks who are caught usually are allowed to keep the financial gains their crimes produced; nobody has asked Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens for refunds on the huge salaries they pulled down in their juiced-up primes, and their records remain on the books.

              But by most accounts the big majority of dopers have been free-lancers, out for individual gain and backed only by a small coterie of coaches or medical people.  In the Russian case, the practice seemingly was massive, well planned and supported at the highest levels of national sport and government. Indeed, in Vladimir Putin’s Motherland, the dopers and the (so-called) testers were one and the same, the sort of seamless subversiveness not seen since the bad-old days of East Germany.

              Evidence for such conduct is seen in two, quite-separate cases. The first involves only track and field. Although rumors of Russian doping have been rife in the sport for years, they came to the fore only last November, when a German television station aired a documentary in which Yulia Stepanov, a world-class Russian middle-distance runner, testified that she’d regularly used performance-enhancing drugs during her career under the guidance of her national-team coaches and medical people.

 Her account was verified by her husband, Vitali, who’d been a technician in the testing lab that facilitated the process and destroyed or covered up any blood or urine tests that might have revealed it. It gained further credence by a video taken by Julia in which her teammate Maria Savinova, the gold medalist at 800 meters at the 2012 London Games, also admitted to drug use. “Everybody in Russia uses pharma,” Savinova remarked on tape.

The claims set off an investigation by an arm of WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency. Its report found “a deeply rooted culture of cheating” in the Russian sport and has resulted in a suspension of Russian athletes from international track and field competition since November. The IAAF, the sport’s governing body, will rule later this month on whether the ban will continue through the Rio Games.

Worse yet was an article in the New York Times last month in which Grigory Rodchenkov, who directed Russia’s national anti-doping laboratory from 2005 through 2015, said that not only did the facility falsify thousands of drug tests throughout that period under government direction, including during the 2014 Sochi Winter Games that Russia hosted, it also whipped up and administered the drug cocktails the athletes took.

 He said that at Sochi he was part of an elaborate scheme that, amazingly, passed “clean” urine samples through a hole in the wall at the main drug-testing lab that confederates inside swapped for the “dirty” ones Russia athletes submitted after competing. The effort, he said, was the main reason Russia led the national medal table at Sochi after placing a distant 11th at the Winter Games four years earlier, permitting Putin to preen upon the world stage. That a subsequent WADA statement said that Russians accounted for 14 of 31 samples that turned up “positive” after being recently retested from the 2008 Beijing Summer Games using updated methods affirmed the view that the country has been at it for some time. Eight more Russians registered positive in recent retests from the London Games.

Thomas Bach, the German who heads the IOC, has been outspoken since Rodchenkov’s allegations surfaced, calling them a “shocking new dimension in doping” that bespeaks “an unprecedented level of criminality.” They should result in a Russian ban if verified by WADA, he’s said.  Verification, however, might be difficult because witnesses inside Russian figure to be scarce, especially since two close colleagues of Rodchenkov turned up dead within weeks of each other there in February after Rodchenkov had fled to the U.S. (He was sacked after the track-and-field story gained credence.)

Russia has mixed its usual bluster over such matters with denials of institutional responsibility and pledges to cooperate with WADA investigators. Because the Rodchenkov story broke in May, less than 90 days before Rio was to start (on Aug. 5), the IOC might claim it didn’t have time for a thorough probe and let things slide. It also could pass the buck to WADA or the IAAF, even though its leadership is so intertwined with that of those two groups as to make it indistinguishable.

Finally, though, the IOC for once might be forced to back up its high-flown rhetoric about sportsmanship and clean competition with an action supporting it. That would mean doffing its “promoter” hat for the one labeled “policeman.”

 If it can find the “policeman” hat, that is.