Bing praises Ali's fight for social justice

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News
Dave Bing reminisced about Muhammad Ali's death.

West Bloomfield — Muhammad Ali’s death gave Dave Bing an opportunity to reminisce about a time when star athletes were on the frontline of the fight for social justice.

In 1967, the “Ali Summit” in Cleveland brought people like Jim Brown, Bill Russell and Lew Alcindor together to support Ali’s decision to refuse induction into the military during the Vietnam War. One of the men in attendance, NFL Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell, told ESPN a couple of years ago everyone there could have lost their jobs.

Bing, the former Detroit mayor whose Hall of Fame NBA career started in 1966, said Monday today’s athletes don’t seem to have the same responsibilities to their community.

“I think they should absolutely take (on) issues,” Bing said. “They’re standing on the shoulders of guys who were not afraid to stand up for what they believed in, and I think today, guys are so insulated because of the kind of money that they make, they don’t really get too involved in some of the social issues that we’re still dealing with.

“And they’ve got the perfect stage to do that, and Muhammad knew that he had the perfect stage, and he used it to his advantage and it was an advantage for all of us.”

Some athletes still make statements about social issues.

Former Lions running back Reggie Bush wrote “I can’t breathe” on a pregame shirt in 2014, protesting the decision not to indict a New York police officer in the choking death of Eric Garner.

Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman has spoken about “Black Lives Matter,” among other topics,” and said more athletes should address issues impacting society.

And, Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy has repeatedly questioned the NFL’s concussion research through his Instagram account.

But, two Lions players said many athletes worry about backlash on social media, and how any political stance could impact their brand.

“I think in this day and age, the landscape of media and voice has changed,” quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “Everybody has an opinion. Back in that day you might say something and a few people, here or there, are going to give you their opinion or whether they agree with you or not.

“You say something now and if you’ve got 5 million followers on Twitter you’re getting 5 million responses.”

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Stafford continued by saying that the social media landscape has muted some people even though it would theoretically give them a bigger voice. The problem, Stafford said, is that people of all backgrounds might follow athletes on social media, so athletes must pay attention to what they post, especially because anything on social media can become a news story.

Still, Bing thinks more athletes should take advantage of their platform.

“I think they have no sense of history,” he said. “They don’t know what it was like back in the ‘60s. I played in exhibition games where there were restaurants I still couldn’t go into and eat, or hotels when I first broke in the league that we couldn’t stay in.

“So, it was quite different and so there was a connection between the guys who played in the '50s and '60s. We all got along very well. None of us were ‘wealthy’ because … the money wasn’t there at that time, but the guys today, it’s more pure entertainment. And I don’t think they relate with the fact that they wouldn’t be making the kind of money and living the lifestyle that they’re living if it were not for guys like Muhammad and Jim Brown and Bill Russell.”

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Bing first met Ali when he was a sophomore at Syracuse and Ali was still Cassius Clay. Bing’s Orangemen were playing in a Christmas tournament in Miami where Ali was training for his 1964 heavyweight title bout with Sonny Liston, which Bing later attended.

Bing also said his trainer at Syracuse was the Olympic trainer for Ali, and that he and Ali crossed paths again at a basketball camp in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania while Ali was also training there.

“He’d engage in a conversation with anybody, and he never looked at his stardom as something where he was better than anybody else, and he lived his life that way,” Bing said of Ali.

But, Ali knew how big of a star he was and used that platform to fight for justice, both racial and religious.

“Now,” Lions receiver Golden Tate said, “you’re under the microscope with everything you do and everything you say or do can be misread. … Now it’s just, you’ve got to watch yourself. You’ve got to protect your brand and you just never know.”

Tate explained that football players should start building their brand as soon as they reach the NFL because they have the opportunity to meet titans of industry. And any misstep can limit chances to develop relationships that help players be successful after retiring from football.

“Some people want to stay away from drama and all that stuff, and some people want the attention and can handle it,” Tate said. “But I’ll tell you what, social media can build you up really quickly, and it can break you down even quicker. People are heartless when it comes to being behind a computer screen.”

Former Cleveland and Detroit linebacker Mike Lucci was in Miami in January 1964 when the Browns played Green Bay in the now-defunct Playoff Bowl, a third-place game a week before the NFL championship. One night, he saw Ali and Brown sparring in a hotel lobby for a few minutes, something Lucci said would’ve lit up social media today. Instead, nobody there had a camera.

“He was brash and backed it up and you knew what we was saying came from his heart,” Lucci said of Ali. “It wasn’t like it was manufactured or he had an ulterior motive. What he did in the late 60s, he believed it, and you can’t hold against somebody what he believed in his heart.”