After Barack Obama pointed out in a televised address on the San Bernardino shootings that Muslim Americans occupy many familiar social roles including “sports heroes,” Donald Trump offered an incredulous tweet:
Obama said in his speech that Muslims are our sports heroes. What sport is he talking about, and who? Is Obama profiling?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 7, 2015
Most American sports fans, even casual ones, know of Muhammad Ali, whose picture has unsurprisingly graced the majority of subsequent media reports on the accuracy of Obama’s point and Trump’s surprising ignorance.
What’s been less frequently noted is the relevance of Ali to current social and political issues surrounding the “alien other,” not only as a relatively conspicuous Muslim American sports hero, but as an icon of disability who is one of the most visible and esteemed Americans living with Parkinson’s disease.
Ali’s boxing career took place in an especially contentious period of American foreign policy and internal race relations, dual struggles crystalized in Ali’s famously defiant line about the draft and his refusal to fight in Vietnam: “No Vietcong ever called me a n—-r.” Sociologist Harry Edwards referred to Muhammad Ali as the “patron saint” of black athletic revolt. Indeed, Ali’s religiously-inspired sociopolitical stance had interfaith resonance. He was an inspiration, for example, to African-American Christian athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith, who famously bowed their heads and raised their fists in protest of racism on the medal podium at the 1968 Olympics.
It took time, though, for Ali to become a national hero. Indeed, he’s been embraced more widely in retirement than during his boxing career, since many conservative white Americans had once balked at what they perceived to be brash, boastful, and divisive proclamations—both inside the ring and out.
Ali was fully appropriated into mainstream America without words and with his disability on full display when, during the opening ceremony of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, Ali raised trembling arms to light the Olympic torch, securing his place in American hearts.
If that were the most recent public image of Ali, Trump might be forgiven for his apparent lapse of memory. But Ali was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as recently as October 5, 2015, and Trump even received an award in Ali’s name from the boxing legend in 2007.
Ali has now ensured that Trump won’t forget him again any time soon by addressing the Republican hopeful’s bigotry with an incisive and blunt message:
We, as Muslims, have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda. They have alienated many from learning about Islam. True Muslims know or should know that it goes against our religion to try and force Islam on anybody.
But perhaps Trump’s failure to initially call Ali to mind has less to do with his identity as a Muslim American than with the fact that, as a disabled icon, he clashes with the myth Trump holds dearest. The myth of individual opportunity suggests the United States is uniquely configured socially and politically to allow people to harness hard work and talent, with an emphasis on the former, in a solitary climb up a socioeconomic ladder. Acquired disability can suddenly and drastically change social status in the opposite direction. Given the structures and stigmas that marginalize disabled people, acquired disability can make people vulnerable to poverty and give the lie to the myth of individual opportunity.
The late Tobin Siebers thus explained that disability is the “other other that helps make otherness imaginable . . . . In no other sphere of existence . . . do people risk waking up one morning having become the persons whom they hated the day before.” It is clear from the title of his most recent book that Trump finds disability a useful metaphor—for the political policies he despises, at least. In Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again Trump enumerates the manifold national weaknesses he plans to remedy through vigorous competition in educational and healthcare spheres.
I don’t mean to imply that, despite Trump’s well-documented and disturbing comments about particular individuals with disabilities, his failure to think of Ali was malicious. He was more likely disoriented by the use of religion and sports for something other than bolstering the myth of individual opportunity. After all, when strength falters in the pursuit of financial success and social factors appear more formidable than first imagined, religion can intervene as steroid: Even clandestine hard work will pay off, the now bulging myth assures, because nothing escapes the view of an all-seeing deity.
In a more secular vein, Horatio Alger laid much of the foundation for the myth of individual opportunity through his prolific pulp fiction of the late nineteenth century, featuring rags-to-riches tales of boys with few economic resources securing bright futures through a mix of courage, morals, and unflappable determination. No one, though, is more determined than the underdog protagonists of twentieth and twenty-first century sports films, which narrate events Trump could champion.
Undefeated, the 2011 Academy Award winner for best documentary, tells the story of Montrail “Money” Brown, a high school football player in Manassas, Tennessee, who’s faced heartrending obstacles, such as the death of his father, with resiliency. He has a steely drive to make good grades and get into college.
When a knee-injury threatens to end his senior year, throwing the young man into despair, Bill Courtney, the affluent, compassionate and hardnosed white coach, prays aloud for Money during a team meeting. When doctors clear Money to play late in the season, his hopes are renewed and he gets life back on track, which, given the narrative structure in which these events are portrayed, seems to unlock heavenly monetary rewards. Indeed, a businessman who has been “very blessed” offers to pay for the entirety of his college education, which, Coach Bill assures him, was due to Money’s resiliency in the face of adversity.
Born to a humble steel-working family, Rudy, the protagonist of the eponymous 1993 movie, appears destined for an obscure life in the factory, before an unlikely string of events leads him to a glorious football spotlight. What the diminutive defensive end lacks in raw athleticism he makes up for with grit. He studies ferociously, overcomes dyslexia, and transfers to Notre Dame, where he also makes the team.
But when, in his senior year, a new coach appears to squash Rudy’s dream of getting into an official game, a despairing Rudy is admonished by a black groundskeeper named Fortune, who once played Notre Dame football but quit because he had assumed his lack of playing time was due to the color of his skin. He had lived with regret ever since and implores Rudy not to give in to pity. Despite all the pummeling the diminutive Rudy takes in practices, he arrives at his triumphal moment—a sack of the opposing quarterback in an official game—without any discernible impairments, as if a beefy host of angelic blockers had been all the while protecting his puny frame.
Indeed, the real-life Rudy Ruettiger, on whom the film is based, believes the movie’s climax effectively highlights the religious dimension of his story. In an interview on the Christian Broadcasting Network, the Roman Catholic Ruettiger explained, “If you watch the end of the movie, when the kids pick up Sean Astin, the cameras follow Sean right into the ‘Touchdown Jesus,’ right into the arms, and that’s the whole story.”
These are just a sampling of the many sports films with narratives that echo Trump’s vision for America. Namely, that poverty is something to be overcome mainly by heroic individuals who don’t use their identity (racial, ethnic, or religious) as an “excuse” for social patterns of inequality and exclusion, but whose individual merits would be revealed through competition, often aided by their belief in Jesus.
As a Muslim and an aging, disabled former athlete faced with a society not usually designed with people of different levels of mobility in mind, Muhammad Ali, is a potential reminder of the need for interdependence and cooperation, rather than conflict and competition. It isn’t surprising, then, that Obama’s use of religion and sports to highlight the kind of social interdependence required to combat the othering and demonizing of Muslims left Trump feeling a little foggy.