Ali Made Us Laugh, but He Was Never a Clown

There was an old debate from back in the day: did Cosell help elevate Ali’s career or did Ali help elevate Cosell’s career? The wise money was always on “both.” Some might find it ironic and all: a white, middle-aged Jew and a black, youthful Muslim with inter-twining lives, somehow elevating one another.

I did not find it ironic at all.

Cosell and AliThey needed each other and they respected each other. Were an aged Cosell alive today, I have no doubt he would have been the first in line to offer a eulogy. I am convinced the pompous Cosell would have wept like a baby.

What made Muhammad Ali iconic is that he stood for something. Cosell recognized and accepted that. They had much more to talk about than “stats” and hype. Much of what they discussed were life issues and nearly all of it was unfiltered. They did not talk through several layers of publicists, agents and handlers. It was a refreshing, albeit odd friendship. I am convinced that at the core of it all, what Cosell and many of us learned to accept, was that Muhammad Ali lived an ethical and principled life.

Before the rotten tomatoes start to fly, yes I do know Ali took a very unpopular stance against (ironically) an extremely unpopular war. I am a Vietnam-era Army veteran and my best friend died in combat. Please spare the lectures. I am only saying that Muhammad Ali was principled enough to understand exactly what he was doing – and why. No, I did not agree with him at the time, but I learned to respect him.

Yes, he was also hilariously funny. We were not used to athletes being funny in that way. He predicted rounds and such (because he was that good), and he made witty, extemporaneous rhymes and he carried himself in a new, assertive way (even when he tried to lift Cosell’s hairpiece), but he was never a clown. He never wore a costume with a clown nose and floppy shoes but children (all children) loved him. Unlike a clown, he never made a fool of himself for a quick, self-deprecating joke.

What was not a joke is how an establishment treated him. However, right to the very end, he was an ethical man. He outlived the establishment that once tried to destroy him.

Fast Forward

What was truly refreshing about Muhammad Ali then, and remains so as we remember him, is that he moved with grace and dignity as only an ethical person can do in a sea of wanna-be’s, could-be’s and also-ran’s.

Sports has come a long way since the Cosell-Ali conversations. I am not convinced it is always for the better.

Far too many athletes these days are ethically corrupt, and they are surrounded by a cadre of spin-doctors, publicists, personal representatives, legal teams and others who are always at the ready to defend, coddle, excuse and deflect.

The cadre is there to save a brand, and not a person.

Whether we are talking about NFL quarterbacks who are glorified drunks, golfers smacking around their spouses, soccer goalies who assault family members or basketball players who can only display their worth by juggling wives and girlfriends, there are invariably people to save them when they have no business being saved.

Saving such characters does nothing for their reputations, character or their successes off the field.

You may not have loved what Muhammad Ali stood for in a political sense (and that is absolutely your right), but you cannot really question his innate sense of ethics.

I am sorry he needed to continue fighting because he lost three years of his eligibility and athletic life. He took too many shots. I am sorry he died so young. I am happy that he never lost his personal sense of what was right, and that he never allowed himself to be made into a clown.

Most of all, I would like to think that somewhere he and Cosell are continuing their conversations and playful banter.


For more information on Sports Ethics LLC:

Chuck Gallagher, President and Co-Founder (828) 244-1400

Twitter: @sportsethics

































Leave a Reply

Connect with Us

Phone: (828) 244-1400
Fax: (866) 426-4118
Chuck Gallagher
3620 Pelham Road #305
Greenville, SC 29615