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As Muhammad Ali is laid to rest this week, the tributes will come frequently by those close to him.
I can imagine that there will be many common threads about the champion in the ring – his flashy style, his intensity and the epic battles he won. Ali will be eulogized for his character outside of the ring as well – from his conversion to Islam to his advocacy for Parkinson’s disease awareness and research. All accounts will speak of a great man, an ambassador, a champion.
I have no grounds for such a memoir – I never saw Ali fight. Truthfully, I really did not know much about the pre-Parkinson’s champion. My kids saw the news of Ali’s death on Saturday and expected that I could tell them about the boxer being celebrated despite my lack of expertise.
I began to echo the same characteristics they were hearing from the news reporters. Ali was a boxing champion – one of the greatest athletes of all time. He was famous for being flashy and loud at press conferences. Lastly, Ali suffered from Parkinson’s – a disease for which he raised millions of dollars.
After my quick summary, my kids seemed content. I, however, internally struggled. There were pieces of the boxing legend’s legacy that I’d rather my kids ignore. I parent against the idea that flash and swag are valuable. When I mention that Ali was not only the greatest fighter, but thought to be one of the most outwardly confident athletes of all time, my ability to talk about the importance of humility is up-ended.
I’d like to tell my children that the flash and trash-talking were not a part of Ali’s greatness. His greatness in the ring was a product of relentless training – his loud mouth had nothing to do with his success. The hours of work in dirty, sweating gyms allowed him the chance to say such presumptuous insults to his opponents – and, as importantly, back them up in the ring.
I don’t want my kids to understand Ali as a big-talker. That would unduly categorize his legacy in empty flash, not true athletic greatness. I’d take substance over flash any day, and Ali was an athlete who had both.
Muhammad Ali’s legacy outside of the ring is as admirable as his knockouts – but I’ll tell my children that he is an exception.
Ali welcomed the spotlight his confidence called for. I’d prefer my kids not crave that spotlight at all. It was not only the athletic grace that I struggled to explain, but the larger legacy that Ali leaves as a figure of social importance.
I’ve intentionally steered my kids away from connecting sports and social impact. I’m fine with my kids admiring the work of gifted athletes, like Muhammad Ali, between the lines, inside the ropes or when they take the pitch. Their admiration for these superstars should be limited to the field of play.
Just as the most impactful politics are carried out locally, role models are those people who walk among us – teachers, police officers, social workers and doctors. Muhammad Ali’s legacy outside of the ring is as admirable as his knockouts – but I’ll tell my children that he is an exception.
On Friday of this week, the news will air footage of the procession to the final resting place of Muhammad Ali, one of the greatest athletes of all time. These scenes will reignite my kids’ curiosity about how his legacy connects to the lessons they are learning from me.
I’ll tell them that greatness is achieved, not bestowed.
I’ll emphasize that flash and swagger will never be a substitute for substance and grit.
I’ll explain the indelible legacy of Ali as the day when everyday heroes eradicate the disease that has T.K.O.’d too many champions prematurely.
Tobin is a husband and father of 5. Tobin’s rambunctious family life provides ample opportunities for thoughtful pieces about fatherhood. Check out his writing at goodbaddad.com.