The wife and daughter of Muhammad Ali were in Philadelphia Thursday to be part of the Liberty Award ceremony honoring the champion boxer.
On the stage of the National Constitution Center, Lonnie Ali and Laila Ali were joined by former Philadelphia 76er Dikembe Mutombo, 2012 Olympic gold medal boxer Claressa Shields, and 2012 Olympic gold medal rower Susan Francia.
They came together to talk about the importance of sports ethics in a civil society. Moderator Art Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University, steered the conversation toward the influence of Muhammad Ali as a humanitarian athlete, the problems of racism and homophobia in professional sports, and the social responsibility of professional athletes as role models.
“My dad had been in and out of prison for a long time, and when he got out, one day he was telling me he wasted so much of his life,” said Claressa Shields, who started boxing at age 11. “I asked him what he wanted to do, he said, ‘boxing.’ Then he mentioned how Laila took after her dad, Muhammad Ali, and I said, ‘Oh, really?’ He said Laila was a bad girl, and I said, ‘OK.’ I decided, if she could do it, I could do it.”
The afternoon panel was assembled in anticipation of the evening ceremony to bestow Muhammad Ali with the Liberty Medal, an annual award given by the Constitution Center to individuals who best represent the qualities of American democratic values.
Muhammad Ali, aka Cassius Clay, was known in the 1960s and 1970s as much for his outstanding talent inside the ring as his braggadocio. He attracted controversy for the way he trash-talked his opponents, and for his opposition to the Vietnam War.
He was one of the world’s most popular figures, traveling the globe for bouts. He went to the Philippines to fight Joe Frazier (“The Thrilla in Manila”) and to the Congo to fight George Foreman (“The Rumble in the Jungle.”)
While Foreman was the favorite fighter going into the Congo in 1974, Ali was the more popular figure. The locals met him chanting “Ali, Bumaye,” which translates to “Ali, kill him!”
Lonnie Ali, the fighter’s wife, said that despite his outspoken demeanor and strongly held personal and national values, he never imposed them on people in other countries.
“Even though he has his own values, he was never going to place those on them. He respected them for who they were,” said Lonnie Ali at the Constitution Center. “That’s important for us as Americans who have a set of values that we cherish — and I’m not saying they are good, bad, or indifferent, whatever. But don’t expect to go to another country and place your values on them, and judge them by your values.”
Muhammad Ali, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, will appear at the evening Liberty Medal ceremony, on the lawn of the Constitution Center, but Lonnie Ali will be speaking on his behalf.