President Trump said Friday morning he was considering posthumously pardoning boxing icon Muhammad Ali. Although Trump is reportedly very into pardoning now, especially for celebrities and those with celebrity champions, naming Ali raised eyebrows. The boxer's politics and the reason for his original conviction seem inconsistent with Trump's positions on protests and patriotism.
Ali, who died in 2016, was convicted in 1967 for refusing to report for induction into the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. Ali, who converted to Islam in 1964, cited his religious beliefs, but his local draft board rejected his application for conscientious objector classification.
“He was, look, he was not very popular then, certainly his memory is popular now,” Trump told reporters as he prepared to leave the White House on Friday en route to a Group of Seven economic summit in Canada. “I’m thinking about that very seriously, and some others, and some folks that have some sentences that aren’t fair.”
A pardon of Ali would be purely symbolic: The Supreme Court overturned the conviction in a unanimous decision in 1971.
Ali's attorney Ron Tweel released a statement Friday saying “there is no conviction from which a pardon is needed.”
Still, it's curious that Trump would consider Ali for a pardon at all. Trump would have been around 21 when Ali's conviction was in the news, so he probably remembers the uproar it caused. (At that time, Trump was also avoiding serving in Vietnam, getting four deferments.)
Ali's deeply held convictions — and frustration with racism in America — were the basis for his refusal to sign up to go to war. It's not a leap to connect that to the NFL anthem protests that Trump has maligned.
“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America,” Ali said. “And shoot them for what? They never called me n‑‑‑‑‑, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. . . Shoot them for what? . . . How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”
Ali did not want to fight to protect a country that he felt did not protect him against racism and police violence. The similarities between Ali and former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who started the controversial protests against racism and police violence by kneeling during the national anthem, have been noted by those who have studied two men.
After it was announced that Kaepernick would receive Sports Illustrated's Muhammad Ali Legacy Award, Lonnie Ali, the boxer's widow, said in a statement:
I am proud to be able to present this to Colin for his passionate defense of social justice and civil rights for all people. Like Muhammad, Colin is a man who stands on his convictions with confidence and courage, undaunted by the personal sacrifices he has had to make to have his message heard. And he has used his celebrity and philanthropy to the benefit of some of our most vulnerable community members.
Trump clearly disagrees, which is why he has called for the protesting players to be fired.
One big difference: Kaepernick and other athletes have been staunch critics of Trump, while the president considered Ali a friend who was an “amazing example of strength and kindness and ability and athleticism.”
But entertaining an Ali pardon doesn't really require much of Trump, much like his pardon of former boxing champion Jack Johnson. Both men faced legal problems because of racism among other things. Granting deceased but popular Americans pardons is low-hanging symbolic fruit that will probably give Trump and his base something to reference when the president is accused of being racist, which is often.