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How Ali inspired today's athletes to become leaders

September 13, 2012 by NCC Staff


As part of the National Constitution Center's Liberty Medal celebration, an all-star panel on Thursday looked at how athletics have broken down larger social barriers, with Muhammad Ali as a catalyst for sports stars becoming leaders.

Lonnie and Laila Ali. Image: Jeff Fusco

Moderated by Dr. Arthur Caplan, director of the Division of Medial Ethics at the NYU Langone Medical Center, the panel included Lonnie Ali, wife of Muhammad Ali and co-founder of The Muhammad Ali Center; Laila Ali, retired professional boxer and Ali's daughter; Dikembe Mutombo, basketball star, humanitarian, and NCC trustee; Claressa Shields, 2012 U.S. Olympic gold medalist in boxing; and Susan Francia, 2012 U.S. Olympic gold medalist in women's rowing.

Muhammad Ali is this year’s recipient of the Liberty Medal in Philadelphia.

The panelists shared their experiences as competitors, role models, and witnesses to the power of athletes as leaders.

The responsibility of athletes as role models and as people who are willing to take stands on social issues was a hot topic.

“I am impressed when athlete takes a stand,” said Lonnie Ali. But she also stressed the importance of respecting values at the same time.

“Muhammad Ali was a master of respecting other people. He respected them as people,” she said.  “It is important as Americans that we have values that we cherish, but you have to respect the values of others.”

Laila Ali added that athletes have an option to be a leader, if they choose to do so.

“There are leaders and there are followers, if you aren’t going to be leader don’t do something negative,” she said.

Mutombo spoke about the example Muhammad Ali set when he visited his hometown in the Congo to fight George Foreman in 1974.

“Muhammad Ali inspired all of us,” he said. The NBA great said the example Ali set was that athletes can lead.

“Things can be done by anybody,” Mutombo said.

Shields and Francia said they embrace being role models as Olympic champions, like Ali, even when they are working out in the gym and hanging out with other athletes.

“I want to be the best when I am around people,” said 17-year-old Shields.

Francia said Ali is an inspiration even to her fellow rowers.

“'Float like a butterfly sting like a bee,' how many rowing t-shirts I’ve seen that one?” she asked.

“It’s amazing when someone can put that power to good use in society…. People are watching. It’s important to be an inspiration for kids.”

More Liberty Medal Coverage

Muhammad Ali conquered fears to win first big title Ali to join elite company with Liberty Medal How Ali inspired today’s athletes to become leaders

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