Trials of An Icon

The greatest sports moments and figures often transcend their athletic milieu. The reason, is that a sport itself is rarely about the activity – but the participants. It’s the narratives and personalities of the athletes themselves that draw us in, create the drama and more than anything – make us care.

One sports figure who perhaps elicited some of the greatest reactions during his career was Muhammad Ali – Louisville’s beloved son, twentieth century icon and the subject of a newly released documentary by Oscar-nominated director Bill Siegel that was screened on the final night of the Muhammad Ali Center’s “Three Days of Greatness” that finished last Saturday.

The Ali that we know was a showman, a machine-gun of witty bon mots and couplets packaged in such a way as no athlete had managed before but multitudes have tried to imitate since. We remember his iconic fights over the brooding George Foreman, the intimidating Liston and his nemesis Frazier. But paradoxically, Siegel’s film does not look at the bouts Ali had inside the ring, but rather those out of it.

It follows the fighter, then known as Cassius Clay, from his triumph at the Rome Olympics to his conversion to the Nation of Islam and finally forced exile from the sport owing to his refusal to report for the draft. Therein is the film in a nutshell – it’s a look at the least studied part of one of the most storied careers. And the result?  A complex and nuanced portrait of a man who was as much a bundle of bombast as that of quiet introspection. A raconteur, but an ideological one. Ali just as he did forty years ago, has the ability to inflame as he does inspire. He divided many and had a product to sell like any other athlete, but was willing to forego all of that for strength of conviction.

But what relevance does this have for today’s sports fans? Look around and you shall see athletes pedal their well constructed PR controlled images for the sake of profit, or justify certain actions with warped reasoning (Lance Armstrong anyone?). The film, which shows at the Village 8 cinema next week is a lesson in how athletes can transcend their sport through conviction – and more importantly make us care. Ali was a lightning rod that lit up the world and divided as much as he united in equal measure. But he stirred conversations and placed principles above money – something we all need a little bit more of in today’s sports perhaps.

Bridge Over Troubled Water

Teddy Bridgewater may have perfectly arched 348 yards for two touchdowns on Saturday over a hapless Temple defense, but with each wonderfully honed, howitzered pass you could almost hear each one squeak gently against the glass ceiling that UofL football resides under this year. A comfortable win for Strong’s men still saw them slip in the rankings. Why? Well have a think.

Temple was always going to lose. After all they had only won 2 games against ranked opposition in the program’s entire history. And this was a conference game. Losing only 30-7 when falling 24-0 at halftime is perhaps a sweet pyrrhic cherry on the bitterest of trifles for the Owls. Sure they got routed – but they could have been decimated.  But for UofL it must be tough to take. If they want to move up the rankings ladder then they need to start moving through the gears more because they’re never going to get the credit based on their schedule. You can only learn so much residing and cruising in second. Winning is one thing, but when you win and still take a knock in the standings then resting on your laurels is a trait that needs to be nixed.

In the end though, there’s a sinking feeling that no matter how many victories are notched this season or how dominant the Cardinals remain, their destiny is sealed. The schedule is beyond abbhorant and it’s not their fault. They asked Alabama, Texas A&M and Virginia Tech for games and were turned down. They’re that red muscle car kept in the garage, keys put in occasionally, engine revved – but never raced. In time, perhaps that’s what this season will become – a forlorn season with a pricey Dodge ready to purr then roar but never allowed out to drag race against the big boys.

Let’s just hope that next year the Cardinals don’t have a busted Pontiac Firebird in the garage.