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By on June 10, 2016

Through Sport: Standing for Social Justice

By: Sterling Summerville & Lindsay McDaniel Mapp

“Why do we all know a man that was heavyweight champion 45 years ago, and don’t know who the heavyweight champion is today? That’s what every athlete, every entertainer ought to think about, is what are they going to say about me forty years from now. Why do they honor Ali, and will they honor me? It’s because he stood for something, and by standing for something, he made us stronger, and he made us better.” – Rev. Al Sharpton

Headshot of young Muhammad Ali
Headshot of young Muhammad Ali

Today we speak of a man with many names: Ali, The G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time), Cassius Clay, The Louisville Lip, The Greatest, and known to most by his full name which he changed in the mid-60’s as he converted to the religion of Islam, Muhammad Ali. Muhammad Ali’s legacy is one that arguably has transcended that of any athlete past or present. Living his most public years in a country rife with the domestic turmoil surrounding the civil rights movement, the outspoken African-American Boxer of the 1960’s and 70’s has been cited as an inspiration for people around the world. Not simply for the way he dominated the boxing world of his time, but perhaps even more so because of who he was as a person.

Given the prodigious stature of Ali’s boxing resume, it would be a lengthy speech to speak on his accolades and athletic prowess alone. While these are incredible athletic accomplishments, we see Ali’s legacy as having an invaluable impact on the world as a champion for social equality and justice. A figure known for standing up for what he believed in and preaching against the same doctrines of hate that plague the world today. Famous for his outlandish and boisterous rhetoric, Ali used his platform as an athlete to speak out against racial injustice and war. Even going as far as being banned from the sport he loved, in the prime of his career, for refusing to participate as a soldier in the Vietnam War.

That particular sacrifice was the toll he paid as an individual to create societal change. The avenue that Ali chose to take as a peace advocate is one that every athlete, old or young, professional or amateur has the option to choose. It does not have to be on national television or even vocally proclaimed. It does not have to lead to suspension or be done in front of reporters. Taking a stance against injustice is a responsibility and a choice that every athlete can exercise by tapping into the power inside of them. Ali was unapologetic in his exercising and sharing the power he found within himself and, by doing so, led to many of us to find solace and strength in his memory.

Ali’s brand of bravery and courage are rare and often unusual in the sports world, but the world could stand to have a few more Ali’s in it. And what would that world look like if more athletes used their platform and influence as Ali did?

As part of its national partnership with the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence and National Sexual Violence Resource Center, Prevent Connect / CALCASA is looking at how Sports and Athletics is being utilized both as avenue to carry out sexual violence prevention efforts, and as a platform to catalyze change. Sterling, as a former collegiate athlete turned social justice activist, and Lindsay, also a former athlete and fervent fan of all things ‘sport’, look to Ali’s legacy as a blueprint for how athletes and all those engaged in Sports and Athletics can take action out of the ring (or off the field) to incite societal change and create the cultural conditions in which sexual violence can no longer exist.

Sterling Summerville is a consultant for CALCASA/PreventConnect on our ‘Sexual Violence Prevention in Sports’ project.  Sterling brings both personal experience as an athlete and professional training as a sexual violence prevention advocate to this work.

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