As I type this, the internet radio says they’re burying Muhammad Ali.
For twenty years, some of the fiercest men on earth failed to put Ali on the ground, and now a handful of heartsick ones will put him in it. Time is, indeed, the conqueror.It’s been decades since time and illness scored their first victory over the former heavyweight. Parkinson’s disease, doing what opponents, critics and even the United States government could not, silenced him in the mid nineties. And this is perhaps the larger shame. After all, so much has been made of the fighter’s verbal brilliance, his unique ability to speak truth to power and an unflinching will when his principles demanded great risk.
Call it another crown in time’s trophy case: the ironic twist that all the things which made Ali a pariah in the mid sixties — the unapologetic autonomy, social activism and conscientious objection — are precisely the reasons he’s now one of the most inspirational sports figures in history.
But it’s not the sporting, or even the cultural context of these triumphs that interests me here. It’s the professional one. You see, in 1966, Muhammad Ali wasn’t just a prizefighter or folk hero. He was also a business. Big business.
Behind the championship belts and mesmerizing interviews, there was an enterprise. It employed people. It supported families. It provided a living that soared beyond the wildest expectations of a black man from the Jim Crow south who barely graduated high school.
And yet Ali proved willing to lose it all for his convictions.
In response to the Justice Department denying his conscientious objector status and sentencing him to five years in prison, Ali said, “I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars…So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”
I can not think of a contemporary parallel.
Yes, we live in an age of greater corporate social responsibility. Today, firms all around the world, including my own, believe it’s imperative to do good in addition to doing well. And this is clearly a positive evolution in what it means to be a decent business. But risking everything it is not.
Yes, Target, Starbucks, General Mills and many other national brands have enacted internal policies or consumer facing communications to promote a more charitable, tolerant and just society. Some have even faced resistance from the fringes of their customer bases. Still, I’m doubtful that any such actions were taken before cost/benefit analyses and public opinion polling showed the reward outweighed the risk.
Please don’t mistake this for criticism. I don’t believe good works are any less good when they also happen to be good business. I’m simply curious about the times they’re not. What do smaller organizations in markets like ours do when they feel compelled to right a perceived wrong, but lack the scale to weather a backlash?
Recent history has offered no shortage of cultural flashpoints. Flags. Bathrooms. Background checks and marriage licenses.
What business are these of our businesses? And, regardless of your stance on any of them, where is the actionable tipping point for you? When does something become important enough to risk everything?
I like to think I have an answer, but I’d be lying if I told you I was one hundred percent certain.
What I am certain of, however, is the hope that you and I and every other businessperson never have to find out. That we’ve learned to respect one another and work together to find equitable solutions to the differences we face. I hope no one reading this is ever forced to risk everything for the ability to live with themselves afterward.
But I also hope that those who were, and did — “The Greatest” among us you might say — are forever championed.
Time the conqueror be damned.
This piece first appeared in the June 13th edition of the Columbia Regional Business Review