Most great dramas, but not all, require both a hero and a villain. And at this time when the world celebrates the heroism of Muhammad Ali, the courage it took for him to stand up for his beliefs and his convictions even if it meant risking jail time in the process, there is the charge, coming from a lot of directions, that if Ali was as brave as he was that somehow most modern young athletes are cowards. If you aren't this, you must be that. It's never a course in logic, or fairness.
This younger generation, it's too rich, we're told, or too scared or too self-absorbed to take the stand that Ali did against the Vietnam War. Famously, he didn't step forward on the day his name was called nearly 50 years ago, and now we are supposed to believe that any young sports star who doesn't step forward and step up to our satisfaction is somehow hiding in his locker, or under a desk.
Their crime, especially if they are young and famous and rich and black, as far as I can tell, is that they are not Ali. Or Jackie Roosevelt Robinson. Or Arthur Ashe, who was born just one year after Ali was in the 1940s in America. Or Billie Jean King, a tennis player who was as much a civil rights leader -- for women -- as any of them.
These were -- and are, in Billie Jean's case -- remarkable Americans. It is easy to forget the decency and humanity and courage Ashe showed in his time on the public stage, and not just because of an extraordinary visit to South Africa. In demeanor, Ashe was so much more like President Barack Obama. But he was another gift to the world from this country, an ambassador representing the best of us.
So was Ali, a Muslim at a time when we're told that all Muslims are a potential threat in America, one who reminded us again this past weekend that a Muslim could still be the most popular athlete in this world, even in death. But just because the athletes of today aren't Ali, aren't as outspoken, does not mean that they somehow shame his memory, and Robinson's, and Arthur's, shames the way Billie Jean continues to stand up and say something when another man says that women in her sport aren't worthy of equal prize money. Just because there are all sorts of ways to fight for equality, and do what is right.
Maybe there is an athlete today who would have to make the choices that Ali made when he was drafted to serve in the Army. Maybe someday there will once again be a draft in America, a different kind of lottery than we see with talented young guys in the NBA, and they will have to make the choice about going and fighting in the Middle East that Ali made with Vietnam. And then we will see. But just because Ali had this kind of good in him doesn't mean that young guys now are bad.
At least LeBron James spoke up about Ferguson, Missouri. But beyond that, where was the bar set for him? Four years ago, after a pathetic wannabe cop named George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin to death on a night when Martin was wearing a hoodie, Dwyane Wade posted a picture of himself in a hoodie and so did LeBron James. He also posted an Instagram photo of all Heat players wearing hoodies, as the Miami Heat issued this statement:
"Our hearts go out to the family and loved ones of Trayvon Martin for their loss and for everyone involved in this terrible tragedy. We support our players and join them in hoping that their images and our logo can be part of the national dialogue and can help in our nation's healing."
What Wade did and LeBron did? It wasn't nothing.
Michael Jordan always got it for not being some kind of activist, and still gets hit for reportedly saying once that "Republicans buy shoes, too." Derek Jeter gets hit all the time for not saying more, as if his Turn 2 Foundation, established to help turn kids away from drugs and alcohol and has raised upwards of $20 million since Jeter established it in 1996 doesn't exist. Does that make him Ali? As Joe Frazier would have said, Lawdy no. Does that make him the head of a political movement? It does not. Could he have said more and done more? Sure. But just because Jeter hasn't done more doesn't mean he hasn't done anything to try to make this a better world.
Brendon Ayanbadejo, the former Baltimore Ravens linebacker, became an activist for marriage equality in Maryland. Was he a star? He was not. But he stood up.
It is easy to tell stars such as Jeter and LeBron that we have decided they haven't done enough, and ascribe our own theories about the motivations behind the lives they have lead away from the game. Was it awkward over the weekend listening to LeBron discuss Ali? It was. He sounded like a kid who had crammed for the spot quiz, and was apparently under the impression that Ali did do jail time for refusing to allow himself to be drafted into the Army.
Of course, this wasn't in the same ballpark with what Vince Coleman said 30 years ago when he was asked about Robinson and said, "I don't know nothin' about him. Why're you asking me about him?" At the time, Rachel Robinson, still the elegant First Lady of baseball, said that she hoped Coleman would learn, and someday be embarrassed by his ignorance.
Is it too much for us to ask athletes the same age that Ali was when he became a conscientious objector to embrace or even reach for high causes? No, it isn't. But do we have the right to demand that they reach for those high causes, or risk insult for the rest of us if they don't? Sometimes it is way too easy for us to be brave as we tell these young guys how we think they should be brave.
Ashe was as tough and good as anybody I have ever met covering sports. When he did go to South Africa to play tennis in 1975, he said in his own cool, wry way that he was almost pleased to see "Whites Only" signs, because if he hadn't, it would have been like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower. He didn't force them, in that one trip, to take down all those signs, in the capital of apartheid. He still began to change that country, and the world.
Will there be another Robinson, or Ashe, or Ali? You know who knows that? God knows. They were all products of their time in America, before social media and the runaway, occasionally spoiled self-absorption that comes with it. They didn't care what we thought. The last column the great Red Smith ever wrote ended this way: "Maybe someday there would be another DiMaggio." Maybe someday there will be another Ali. But it will be no crime if there isn't.