One of the best ways to look at how perceptions of icons change over time is to look at how the media portrays the icon. In 1968, Esquire Magazine covered the story of Muhammad Ali refusing to go fight in Vietnam, and put Ali on the front cover impaled by arrows. The cover photo references a painting called “The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian” done by Antonio Pollaiuolo during the 1400’s, which depicts Sebastian tied to a post and shot with arrows because he clung to his Christian faith during the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians.
Esquire’s decision to play off of the story of Saint Sebastian speaks to a majority of American’s view of Muhammad Ali in 1968–people resented him and marked him a traitor to the United States because he did not fight in the war after being drafted. There are religious undertones as well, as America in 1968 was strictly Christian, meaning a faction of the American public held Islamaphobic ideals. Muhammad Ali not only detested the thought of fighting for America because of his high levels of distrust for the country itself, but also because the war went against his Islamic values. Like Saint Sebastian, Ali stood by his faith. Needlessly to say, American’s reacted negatively to Ali’s decision, and shot him with proverbial arrows in the court of public opinion.
So, we shouldn’t be surprised that in the country of contradictions, this American traitor has become one of the most iconic and beloved figures in our history. As proof, I found a recent Sports Illustrated cover from 2012 that celebrates Ali’s 70th birthday. On the cover, Ali is posed in a fighting stance, fists ready to punch. He looks strong, brave, and courageous–all things that we as American’s value. It is vastly different than the picture from 1968 to say the least. What really caught my eye, though, was the text that accompanied the picture. It reads, “…the man with 38 cover appearances still inspires us, especially remembering the long road he traveled from denounced rebel to beloved icon.”
The quote plays on America’s love for the underdog–that we are so inspired by Ali because of all he had to overcome, the tough road he endured. What is so hypocritical though, and therefore unequivocally American, is that America was the alpha dog that created Ali’s circumstances as an underdog. America created the tough road, painted him a traitor, and then shot arrows at him. And yet, now, America rejoice’s in the survival story, calls Ali inspiring and celebrates his success. I can hear America itself saying, “Yay, awesome job Mr. Ali, you survived how horrible I was, lets be friends.” That’s America, always controlling the narrative, celebrating the underdog that it created by being bigoted and narrow-minded.
If Ali stepped into the ring against America, I wonder how mercilessly he’d beat it.