A letter from a reader: Taking pride in Ali's degree

November 12, 2007:

I don't often write to PAW, but I cannot let T. James Binder's letter regarding Muhammad Ali (Sept. 26). I find it difficult to believe that Mr. Binder managed to graduate from Princeton with so little appreciation of Dr. Ali's role in modern American history or of the terribly unfair situation under which black Americans of Dr. Ali's age had grown up.

Mr. Binder suggests that Dr. Ali could have been a conscientious objector. He could have, but he chose not to be hypocritical. He believed that the war was wrong, not that all violence was necessarily wrong. If he had wanted to be hypocritical, the champ could have made a comfortable deal with the military in which he could have boxed and consulted on physical development.

Mr. Binder also says that Dr. Ali simply could have accepted incarceration. If one believes that the system is fair and is working, then submitting to it makes sense. However, Mr. Binder ignores the history of black America. Brown vs. Board of Education was the first breakthrough in the legal system that even suggested that black Americans might be treated fairly. No reasonable black person would have considered the establishment as fair. The very idea of Dr. Ali's resistance to the draft was that the entire military system was unfair to and exploitative of people of color. He spent years of his career and much money to fight what many Americans came to recognize as one part of the "moral crime" that was Vietnam.

Muhammad Ali was certainly a pivotal figure in the development of professional sports. He created a persona that revitalized his sport and that became a model for other athletes. While Mr. Binder may not appreciate some of the qualities that Dr. Ali used and while many of us may yearn for the more dignified athletes of earlier times, the fact is that no one could ever accuse Dr. Ali of not being a true competitor or of not giving his best as a champion. Nor have I ever heard any story of his cruelty toward other beings – human or animal.

Mr. Binder is correct that there are many jocks in the world; a great number of them are not deserving of respect. They have never taken the risk or the principled stance of a Muhammad Ali. It would be a disservice to all Princeton alumni if honorary degrees were given to such athletes; athletics is not the reason for Princeton. Learning to think for oneself and to act morally is, however, very much the goal of the Princeton experience.

I for one am proud that Muhammad Ali has a degree from my alma mater; I only wish that I could be similarly proud of Mr. Binder.

Scottsdale, Ariz.

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