First let me put my cards on the table. I consider Jemele Hill, sports columnist for ESPN.com to be as incisive and interesting as they come. She has been a frequent and fearless guest on my radio show and is always aces on the air. That's why I'm so gobsmacked by Jemele's latest column, subtly titled, Laud the Courage in Tim Tebow's Stand..
Jemele makes the case that Tim Tebow's presence in an anti-abortion Super Bowl Ad, funded by Focus on the Family, "should be praised rather than condemned." This by itself shouldn't be too surprising. All week, every sports writer on earth from the Washington Post's great Sally Jenkins to Tebow's personal foot masseur, Sports Illustrated's Peter King, have raised this "defend the courage of Tim Tebow" line to a deafening din. [Tragically in our culture, I would argue that taking a stance against women's reproductive rights, is anything but "courageous." It's as mainstream as the Super Bowl.]
But Jemele Hill chose to take it to an entirely higher level: a level that deeply miseducates her readers and demands a response. She chose to write, "Tebow's decision to appear in this ad should be considered just as courageous as Muhammad Ali's decision to not enter the draft, or Tommie Smith's and John Carlos' black power salute at the 1968 summer Olympics."
Dear Lord, Jemele. Where do we possibly begin to unpack this? Tim Tebow is starring in a 2.8 million dollar ad while being praised by sports writers, pundits, and politicians from coast to coast. In contrast, Muhammad Ali's decision to refuse the draft and say "I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong" resulted in getting stripped of his title, being abandoned by almost every significant person in his life, pushed to bankruptcy, and hit with a five year Leavenworth prison sentence, which included revoking his passport. The very same day of his conviction in federal court, the US Congress voted 337-29 to extend the draft four more years. They knew how important Ali was and the full weight of the federal government was hell-bent on breaking his will. As Jack Olson wrote years later in Sports Illustrated, "The noise became a din, the drumbeats of a holy war. TV and radio commentators, little old ladies...bookmakers, and parish priests, armchair strategists at the Pentagon and politicians all over the place joined in a crescendo of get Cassius get Cassius get Cassius."
As for Tommie Smith and John Carlos, after their black-gloved salute, they were kicked out of Olympic Village, with a firestorm waiting for them at home. They were pariahs, unable to find work and support their families. The Chicago Tribune called their act "an embarrassment visited upon the country... contemptuous of the United States," and "an insult to their countrymen" who would come home to be "greeted as heroes by fellow extremists." Brent Musberger called them "a pair of dark-skinned storm troopers." As John Carlos said to me years later, "Today, I don't feel embraced, I feel like a survivor, like I survived cancer. It's like if you are sick and no one wants to be around you, and when you're well everyone who thought you would go down for good doesn't even want to make eye contact. It was almost like we were on a deserted island. That's where Tommy Smith and John Carlos were. But we survived."
But perhaps the most glaringly obvious difference is that Ali, Smith and Carlos had to face the ugliest most vile edge of racism, and not just in the press. Klansmen, Nazis, and all manner of "lone nuts" threatened their lives. Tim Tebow, in sharp contrast, has only burnished his credentials as a hero of both the sports media and the right wing, as well as cementing his relationship with Focus on the Family, an organization with access to the highest echelons of political power. The ensuing public appearance with Sarah Palin, I guarantee, will be coming to a city near you. Comparing the protracted struggle of Ali, Smith and Carlos, to Tim Tebow's Super Bowl ad, is more than simply wrong. It's hyperbole on steroids and it's beneath Ms. Hill. As Ali might have said, "Jemele Hill-a. This piece is more broken than Frazier in Manila."