(’Champ, seen my waffle iron?)
I said Ali was the only enduring, authentic worldwide sports celebrity we’ll ever know1. His phenomena was just recent enough to benefit from technology-wrought global interconnectivity while missing sports as an end-all for hawking washing machines.
Today, the acknowledged reason Nike is in the golf business is its association with Tiger Woods. If Nike was around for Ali’s emergence, it’d be in the boxing biz.
Ali’s celebrity was authentic because his fame came from astonishing boxing skills and his being a genuine agent for social change. People were drawn to him organically, not because of a Buick billboard in Bakersfield. Yes, Ali understood how to market himself and his sport, but he wasn’t contrived.
Like Ali, Woods has had opportunities to assist the socially disadvantaged in a material way. Despite winning four times at whitewashed Augusta National, the most famous multi-ethnic athlete in history has done next to nothing to spotlight the club’s laughably lopsided demographic.
But if you think Ali would’ve been any different from Tiger had he exploded on the scene in ‘97, as Woods did at The Masters, you don’t know Tiger’s dad Earl.
In 1951, a brave badass named Earl Woods broke the Big Eight Conference color barrier as a baseball player at Kansas State. Before he died in 2006, Earl likened his son in public to Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and … Muhammad Ali.
He once called Tiger a, “humanitarian, very similar to that of Gandhi … he will be like an ambassador at large, without portfolio.”
It’s also well-documented before and after Tiger’s Thanksgiving accident that in private the golfer retained his father’s penchant for being outspoken, opinionated, inelegant and of course, infidelious. (In 2006, Earl told Karen Crouse of the NEW YORK TIMES, “marriage isn’t necessary in a mobile society.”)
Tiger inherited his personality from a man who challenged and defeated systematic racial inequality in sports. A man who also made it clear that he wanted his son to have a similar, if not more significant impact on societal change.
So if anyone in our history was ever positioned to grasp the baton from Ali, making his mark as a, “humanitarian, very similar to that of Gandhi … to be an ambassador at large,” it’d be Tiger, right?
If only for that dratted waffle iron.
But don’t blame Nike completely for inspiring Tiger to dumb down his personality in public for the benefit of head cover sales.
Here’s Tiger’s agent Mark Steinberg in an interview with SPORTSBUSINESS JOURNAL in 2002:
Steinberg said some of his disagreements with clients are over what they’re going to say on public matters. He said he’s vigilant about protecting his clients from being pulled into controversies because of their celebrity.
“It’s not right for an athlete to leverage his celebrity status to influence people,” he said. “What if he wasn’t a great golfer? Would anyone want to hear what he has to say?”
If Tiger was ever going to change, this would be the moment. But after his most recent stiffly insincere public statement, replete with crying Nike rep seated on the right hand of Tiger’s mother Kultida, don’t hold your breath.
As for Ali, I wish I could say he’s the greatest of all time.
I really do.
1 Per Richard Deitsch of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, Pele also deserves some consideration.