The Briefing 06-06-16
Tags: Audio, Baylor University, Muhammad Ali
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Monday, June 6, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Muhammad Ali, the 20th century's most charismatic and controversial sportsman, dead at 74
The front-page obituary in the New York Times began with these words yesterday,
“Muhammad Ali, the three-time world heavyweight boxing champion who helped define his turbulent times as the most charismatic and controversial sports figure of the 20th century, died on Friday in a Phoenix-area hospital. He was 74.”
Now consider the fact that this obituary by Robert Lipsyte points to the fact that Ali is, by the description of this paragraph, both the most charismatic and the most controversial single sports figure in the world in the 20th century. That’s really saying something. Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky, sprang onto the international and national attention in 1960 as a member of the U.S. Olympic team, eventually winning a gold medal in boxing. But it was in 1964 that Ali earned the first of his three world heavyweight boxing championships, defeating Sonny Liston. But the big story here is not about the icon that became Muhammad Ali, but rather the individual who, named Cassius Clay, won that 1964 title. As a matter of fact, he went on in over 20 years of active boxing to win 56 fights and to lose only five.
But the big story behind Muhammad Ali and the reason why he was known as not only, as the obituary says, the most charismatic, but also the most controversial sports figure of the 20th century, had a great deal to do with theological pilgrimage as well. Born Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky, he named himself Cassius X the day after he won that 1964 title, indicating, as the Miami Herald reported the night before, a transition into an identity as a member of the Nation of Islam. Later in life, Muhammad Ali changed his name from Cassius Clay to Cassius X to Muhammad Ali, and he also moved into a more classic identity with historical Islam. Lipsyte got right to the controversy when he wrote,
“Ali was as polarizing a superstar as the sports world has ever produced — both admired and vilified in the 1960s and ’70s for his religious, political and social stances. His refusal to be drafted during the Vietnam War, his rejection of racial integration at the height of the civil rights movement, his conversion from Christianity to Islam and the changing of his “slave” name, Cassius Clay, to one bestowed by the separatist black sect he joined, the Lost-Found Nation of Islam, were perceived as serious threats by the conservative establishment and noble acts of defiance by the liberal opposition.”
That’s a generalization that is not exactly true. As a matter of fact, it was not just the conservative establishment that didn’t know what to do with Muhammad Ali, it was the larger American establishment and it was also the vast mainstream of American culture that in the 1960s and 1970s didn’t know exactly what to do with the man who had been known as Cassius Clay, then Cassius X, then Muhammad Ali. But the reality is, most Americans in those same time periods understood that Muhammad Ali was an evolving personality, and his theological identity was evolving as well. The Nation of Islam, the group that Muhammad Ali joined in the mid-1960s, was a group that included within its leadership both the man known as Elijah Muhammad and another significant individual, especially during the civil rights era in America, Malcolm X. As the New York Times reported,
“At a mosque there, Clay was introduced to the Nation of Islam, known to the news media as ‘Black Muslims.’ Elijah Muhammad, the group’s leader, taught that white people were devils genetically created by an evil scientist. On Allah’s chosen day of retribution, the Mother of Planes would bomb all but the righteous, and the righteous would be spirited away.”
Now that’s a theology that was unknown even to most Americans who did not know what to do with Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. What they did come to understand is that the group was identified with Black Nationalism, and in the 1960s and 70s that put the Nation of Islam radically at distinction with the Civil Rights movement and with the effort to overcome legal segregation throughout the United States. The civil rights movement was based upon an agenda of integration, but the Nation of Islam was based upon a worldview of separation. I repeat the fact that, as the New York Times reports, the “Black Muslims” as they were known then, and the Nation of Islam, “taught that white people were devils genetically created by an evil scientist.”
So even as the Civil Rights movement mainstream was trying to argue for an equality of human beings regardless of race, the Nation of Islam was arguing in the opposite direction, and it was with that group that Muhammad Ali identified. Later in life, Ali was to transition from identification with the Nation of Islam to an identification with a more traditional form of Islam. But even then there were glaring questions about Muhammad Ali’s commitment even to Islam in terms of a moral structure. Again, the obituary from The New York Times states,
“His personal life was paradoxical. Ali belonged to a sect that emphasized strong families, a subject on which he lectured, yet he had dalliances as casual as autograph sessions. A brief first marriage to Sonji Roi ended in divorce after she refused to dress and behave as a proper Nation wife. (She died in 2005.) While married to Belinda Boyd, his second wife, Ali traveled openly with Veronica Porche, whom he later married. That marriage, too, ended in divorce.”
The CNN obituary on Ali noted that he was survived by nine children and by the woman who was his fourth wife, Lonnie. History will record that Muhammad Ali redefined boxing in terms of the heavyweight sport with which he was identified throughout his life. And it’s also true that Muhammad Ali redefined the way that boxers understood how they were to operate in the ring. But as much as Ali is remembered as a boxer, he is also remembered as a figure on the national and international stage. At age 21 in 1963, with only 15 professional fights he was already on the cover of Time magazine. Ali understood the role of the media and popular culture and he clearly understood that a celebrity in the last half of the 20th century had to be not only notable for something such as winning heavyweight titles, but also for becoming a personality, with predictable consequences every time there was an intersection of Muhammad Ali and a camera.
But Ali is also known for a forceful projection of his own charisma and his own identity, not to mention his own ego on the international stage. In a same generation in which Frank Sinatra was known for singing the song, “I did It My Way,” Muhammad Ali became known for doing just about everything his way and for describing himself, lest anyone be surprised, as “The Greatest.”
But for Americans born in the last 30 years, Muhammad Ali as a fighter exists only in terms of video records and memory. The reality is that for the last 30+ years of his life, Muhammad Ali has been in a period of prolonged sunset because of the onset of Parkinson’s disease. His fourth wife claimed that that Parkinson’s disease was brought on by environmental factors, but just about everyone in the sporting world understood that even as Muhammad Ali was ending his career as a boxer, it was apparent that damage had been done by the repeated blows to the head that is suffered by any boxer, not to mention a boxer who had been in so many fights, winning so many, but losing just a few. The fact is that Muhammad Ali had partially redefined boxing and the way to win the heavyweight champion by what he called ‘the rope a dope’ in which he would simply absorb blows until his opponent was exhausted, then capitalizing on that exhaustion to deliver the knockout blow and win the title.
But all that came with severe consequences to Muhammad Ali and writing about that at Religion News Service in the aftermath of Ali’s death, two rabbis, Jeffrey Salkin and Rabbi Stephen Fuchs, pointed out that there is no way to separate Muhammad Ali and his Parkinson’s disease from the questions of the morality of sport, especially the morality of violent sports and, in the case of boxing, often a blood sport. Rabbi Fuchs wrote, and I quote,
“Muhammad Ali was undoubtedly a great champion and a principled opponent of an ill-considered war who was willing to pay a heavy price for his convictions.
“But we should also note that after more than 30 years of agony to Parkinson’s Disease directly caused by the punishment he endured in the ring, he has become yet another human sacrifice on the altar of our love for violent sport.”
I would not presume to be able to offer on The Briefing an extended argument for or against boxing in terms of the Christian worldview. It is considered by many to be amongst the most honorable of sporting events and by others to be unnecessarily brutish and brutal. Nevertheless, it is clear that the case of Muhammad Ali points to the fact that the Creator did not intend the human body to be endlessly pummeled, especially when it comes to the head. But what we see in the case of Ali is that he was indeed a victim of the very sport that brought him to such international prominence and celebrity.
As the New York Times indicated, Muhammad Ali was one of the most polarizing figures of the 20th century. I do think it’s rather incredible that the New York Times identified Ali as the most charismatic and controversial sports figure of the 20th century. That same obituary went on to describe him as, “as polarizing a superstar the sports world has ever produced.”
That means that even his obituary is a matter of continuing controversy. The death of Muhammad Ali brings about the unusual opportunity for us to revisit the turbulent and tumultuous decades of the 1960s and 1970s and to remember just how polarized the times were. The death of Muhammad Ali brings about many different avenues for conversation, reflection, and Christian worldview analysis, including his own theological pilgrimage. It will be very, very interesting to see how Muhammad Ali’s religious understanding is made clear or not made clear in terms of even the funeral service and other memorials that will be consuming so much of the nation’s attention over the next several days. It is also the case that in death there is the temptation to try to remove the controversy from an individual’s life. What’s really interesting, therefore, about that front-page obituary in yesterday’s edition of the New York Times is that The Times did no such thing.
It’s also very interesting to reflect upon the fact that even as Muhammad Ali died on Friday at just age 74, the prime years of his controversial life were back in the 1960s and the 1970s, which draws attention to the fact that he was such a young man when he won that gold medal in 1960 in Rome, still such a young man when he won the first of his three heavyweight titles, and still, we should note, a relatively young man when that Parkinson’s disease began to take him away.
For many Americans, sports basically functions as a religion, and that draws our attention to the fact the Muhammad Ali’s death at age 74 demonstrates to Americans whose major religious impulse is actually sports just how every single sports figure, no matter how great, no matter how celebrated, no matter how decorated, ends in just such an obituary as we saw yesterday. If sports is all that there is, then all there is is sports.
The battle for the soul of Baylor continues in the midst of sexual-assault controversy
Next, and closer to home, a story at the intersection of sports and higher education, in particular at the intersection of sports and Christian higher education, in the case of Baylor University in Texas. Over the last couple of years, accusations have been made by several women that they were the victims of sexual assault on the Baylor campus, or at least by members of the sports teams at Baylor University, in particular, the football team at the school, which during that same time period had catapulted into national prominence. Just over a week ago, news reports emerged saying that the Philadelphia law firm of Pepper Hamilton hired by the University’s board had conducted an independent study and had come to the conclusion that there had been a massive internal failure in terms of Title IX responsibility and larger moral issues at Baylor.
When the story broke just over a week ago, Sports Illustrated indicated that the Pepper Hamilton report had put a great deal of blame upon the coaching staff at Baylor, upon the athletic administration, and even upon the school’s highest ranks of administration—and that included its president, former federal judge and Whitewater prosecutor, Ken Starr. Very quickly, the headlines began to tumble over one another, indicating the suspension and then the firing of head coach Art Briles and then the fact that the University board had also fired the institution’s president, Ken Starr. He was fired, we were told, then as president, but would continue as chancellor and as a professor of law. In the next several days, it became very clear that Starr would also resign as chancellor, although it was unclear whether or not he would continue as a law professor.
Ian McCaw, the institution’s athletic director, was also out and the University’s board put in place an interim president, David Garland. The University released a statement saying,
“We were horrified by the extent of these acts of sexual violence on our campus. This investigation revealed the University's mishandling of reports in what should have been a supportive, responsive and caring environment for students,” said Richard Willis, chair of the Baylor Board of Regents. “The depth to which these acts occurred shocked and outraged us. Our students and their families deserve more, and we have committed our full attention to improving our processes, establishing accountability and ensuring appropriate actions are taken to support former, current and future students.”
Sports Illustrated then went on to specify,
“Baylor is accused of failing to respond to reports of rape and/or sexual assault filed by at least six female students from 2009 to 2016. Two former football players, Tevin Elliott and Sam Ukwuachu, have been convicted of rape.”
By any measure, this is a very big story and it’s a particularly big story because of Baylor University’s long-standing identification as a Baptist university. And as you look at Baylor over the last few decades, you see an evolving identity that is not known to most, perhaps even in Texas. Baylor University was established in 1945 and for many years, indeed for decades, it operated very openly as an institution identified with the state Baptist Convention there in Texas—the older convention known as the Baptist General Convention of Texas—that was during the time of the SBC controversy—the branch of Texas Baptists that identified with the so-called moderates at that time, that is, the more liberal branch of what emerged as a controversy between liberal and conservative Southern Baptists. Baylor University was in many ways the torchbearer for the moderate cause and the Southern Baptist Convention, though the university itself was never actually a Southern Baptist university.
Over the years, the Southern Baptist Convention assigned primary responsibility to six theological seminaries directly under the denomination’s control; the State Baptist colleges and universities were not under the control the denomination. But even the control of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, a moderate convention, was too much to be feared by Baylor, and it was Baylor’s President Herb Reynolds who back in 1990 announced that the University’s board had ambushed the Baptist General Convention of Texas by unilaterally changing its charter to basically become a self-perpetuating board, creating a new entity out of the old, and largely denying the Baptist General Convention of Texas the opportunity to elect trustees to the University’s board of governance. Herb Reynolds, President of the institution from 1981 to 1995, was himself a standard-bearer for the more liberal movement among Southern Baptists. As conservatives gained control in the Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist moderates in Texas, in particular those identified with Baylor, became concerned that the Baptist General Convention of Texas would also fall to conservative influence.
The press has often reported Baylor University as a Baptist institution and many have described it as the largest Southern Baptist college or university, but actually it is not now and has never been under the control of the Southern Baptist Convention. But the other big story here has to do with the battle for Baylor’s soul, a battle that has consumed much of the institutions energy over the last 20 years. After Baylor declared its institutional independence from the Baptist General Convention of Texas, the successor to Herb Reynolds in 1995 was Robert Sloan. And Robert Sloan wanted to identify Baylor University with a more explicitly integrationist and evangelical understanding. This led to a tumultuous decade, a part of which included the adoption of a report known as Baylor 2012, a long-range plan to catapult Baylor into the top tier of American universities and, according to the vision of Robert Sloan, also to create a Baptist parallel to the University of Notre Dame and Roman Catholicism—that is, a school that would represent an evangelical research university on par with Notre Dame in the Catholic tradition. But many more liberal faculty members at Baylor University opposed both the Baylor 2012 plan and the president at the time, Robert Sloan, who eventually resigned in 2005.
Ken Starr, relieved of his responsibilities as president to Baylor University last week, becomes the third president of Baylor in a row to leave either fired or under significant pressure. The election of Ken Starr, who had previously served as the Dean of the Law School at Pepperdine University, who had served as a federal judge and was most famous to Americans as the Whitewater prosecutor in the Bill Clinton case—the election of Starr was interpreted by many as an effort to reset the evangelical trajectory of the Baylor 2012 document. And yet it is now clear that the battle for the soul of Baylor University continues, and it will continue in a way that was not actually foreseen, going back to 1990, in the charter revision at Baylor. This has to do with the fact that under Ken Starr, the University has tried to tie its national reputation to a growing sports reputation and, in particular, trying to catapult Baylor in several sports, but especially in terms of Division I NCAA college football, into the top tier.
But when you consider ironies, just consider the fact that Baylor has made this attempt to catapult itself into the top tier of national athletics at the very time that that world has become wrought by so many issues related to the moral revolution, not only the issue of sexual assault, troubling as that matter is in and of itself, but also the moral revolution in terms of the LGBT agenda. Largely, it was perceived, as a response to that pressure, Baylor University in 2015, just last year, changed its moral code so that it no longer contained a negative statement about homosexual behavior but rather upheld an expectation of heterosexual marital fidelity.
But the biggest story of all in terms of the importance of the Baylor controversy was made clear by Michelle Boorstein of the Washington Post when she wrote on May 25 that the controversy “taps into a couple of the most basic contemporary debates at religious schools.”
“What is the impact in 2016 of the honor codes many religious schools have around sexual behavior? Secondly, is there a conflict between being a religious school and trying to be a major athletic powerhouse?”
That very point was made by Terry Mattingly at the website GetReligion when he pointed out, as a Baylor graduate nonetheless, that the biggest question was “whether serious religious universities can take part in sports at the highest levels.”
One of the points Mattingly made was this:
“It's hard, in the current legal and cultural climate, to be a school that attempts to defend the basics of Christian doctrine on sex.”
That point underlines many of the concerns we talk about regularly on The Briefing and points to the larger significance of the controversy now related to Baylor University. Baylor University and its sports program now find themselves at the center of our national conversation for any number of tragic reasons, indeed, for all the wrong reasons. But much more is at stake here than even the national media have yet understood when it comes to Baylor University, and far more is at stake when it comes to the larger world of Christian higher education. The Baylor board has put David Garland, a man of great integrity, in place as its interim president and, even as the board has taken that significant step, it needs to press far further, understanding that far more here is on the line than merely Baylor University.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College just go Boyce College.com.
I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.