I'll use Lebron for this example because he is the most visible face of the most globalized sport this side of soccer. He's already stated his goal of being, "a global icon," and in order to achieve that he needs a certain characteristic that even eluded Ali during his prime: crossover appeal. People of all cultures and races love Lebron. Don't think for a second that his "powder" thing he borrowed from KG and Jordan was spontaneous. He recognized that he needed more than just on-the-court ability that will allow him to be exalted in the minds of the fans. It's his MJ tongue-wag. If he ever switches logos on his merchandise, I guarantee that the silhouette will be of him with his arms outstretched.
What also comes with crossover appeal is an exponential increase in financial stability (read: Mo' Money). As His Airness himself once famously (or infamously) said, "Republicans buy shoes, too." This set the precedence for all superstar athletes post-Jordan to not be forced to take sides and stir any extra controversy from any one group—more importantly, any one potential sales demographic. Today's athlete is more concerned with endorsement deals than making a difference outside of mandated community service projects. This isn't to say that there aren't athletes that don't care about situations like Darfur or Katrina, but rather this is to say that you won't dare catch them saying anything that isn't politically correct. Etan Thomas is politically active; but with respect to him, most people wouldn't Etan Thomas if they saw him in NBA gear; and he's 6'9". It even took me a couple seconds when I met him a few years back at The
That's why Ali is my favorite person and the Greatest Of All Time. Not only was he the best at his craft, but he still managed to keep his true self without converting through the pressures of celebrity. Now, he's the most celebrated living Black athlete, if not overall athlete, in the world. I'm not bashing the modern pro athlete for it because they are not champions of our struggles. Yes, someone like Lebron or Tiger could use that mass appeal to bring light to those troubles that certain media outlets choose to ignore. And yes, "regular" people have virtually no chance of influencing a newspaper or TV network to give their cares some real air time, regardless of need or sincerity. But in an age where every second of celebrities' and athletes' lives are invaded, we have to respect them if those with a bit of fame don't want to create any added backlash. Ali was a special human being in a different time period. No superstar has to endure any of the harshness that he did during his rise to prominence. And there will never be an athlete with that combination of superstar aura and a desire to be vocal about injustice again.