The news cycle today basically mandates that, in addition to the actual news, we have reactions, reactions to the reactions and then hot takes sprinkled all over. It is, as they say, what it is. Some of those takes are less reasonable than others, however, and I think we’ve found the new leader for silliness in the takes/countertakes following the death of Muhammad Ali.
The take: slamming Derek Jeter for not being Ali. Really. That comes from Ebenezer Samuel of the New York Daily News, who uses Jeter’s remembrance of Ali from the Player’s Tribune as a basis for taking Jeter down a few pegs:
Jeter made a career of never choosing to truly impact the world. Yet there he was on Saturday, praising Ali for teaching him just that . . . Never had such eloquent words of Jeter’s PR flaks rung quite this hollow, the most inauthentic athlete of our time celebrating the most genuine . . . [Jeter] made a career out of not speaking his mind, unless Gatorade or Rawlings or the Steiner Sports memorabilia machine were paying him to speak on their behalf.
At the outset, I hope we can agree that the slamming of Jeter for chasing endorsements is pretty chuckle-worthy. At the very least it reveals that Samuel is too young to remember Ali doing commercials for roach spray and hash browns and stuff. Or making some coin for being a guest referee at Wrestlemania. Indeed, if you’re under 40 you probably saw Ali doing these things before you ever saw footage of him from the Rumble in the Jungle or the Thrilla in Manila. Which isn’t to slam either Ali or Jeter for doing commercials. Get paid if you want and need to, endorse whatever your conscience abides.
The larger issue is Samuel fundamentally misunderstanding Muhammad Ali. There’s a great article over at Fox today by Ali biographer David Kindred. In it Kindred recalls a quote Ali gave in 1964, right after he won the title for the first time and, more significantly, right after he went public with his relationship with The Nation of Islam, changing his name to Cassius X and, later, Muhammad Ali. The press was roasting him. Ali’s response:
Finally, exasperated by the reporters’ insistence that something was wrong, Clay said, “I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be who I want.”
Ali most definitely spoke out for what he believed in and most definitely took political and social stands. Obviously, Derek Jeter has not. Samuel rakes him over the coals for it. But Jeter has his reasons and they are his own. Maybe they’re reasons Samuel, you or I might not find noble or inspirational. Maybe it’s to protect his image or his ad dollars. Maybe it’s because Jeter doesn’t feel comfortable entering that arena for reasons totally separate from that. It doesn’t really matter. Derek Jeter does not have to be what the New York Freakin’ Daily News wants him to be. Or what you or I want him to be. He is free to be who he wants to be. Every athlete and celebrity is, just as every private person is. Despite the fact that we expect so much of athletes and celebrities.
I don’t expect the Daily News to appreciate that, as it thrives on heroes/villains narratives. But maybe for one second someone over at that joint can appreciate the inherent ridiculousness of a column which uses the passing of a man who was literally called “The Greatest,” and universally praised as such in order to say “that guy over there? He wasn’t so great.”