Muhammad Ali and the Law

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Ali declares his refusal to serve the U.S military in Vietnam, 1966.        (Photo by NY Times.)

The internet is replete with powerful tributes to Muhammad Ali, but I’ll humbly add the story of his legal travails. This is excerpted from a Federal Bar Council piece I co-authored with Steve Edwards on boxing law. Re-reading this five years later, I am struck by the final quote, in which Ali forgives an institution that took away his career and nearly took away his freedom. 

No article on boxing would be complete without a discussion of Muhammad Ali.  Born Cassius Clay, Ali was an Olympic gold medal winner who shocked the world by beating Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship at age 22.  The day after the fight, Ali announced his name change, which prompted FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to inquire about his draft status.  Subsequently, Ali was classified 1-A.  Ali responded by declaring that he was a conscientious objector, proclaiming “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong.”  The government rejected Ali’s claim and drafted him, which set off a long-running bout with the United States government. 

Ali first challenged the constitutionality of the selective service act in Kentucky and then in Texas, losing both cases.  Even though Ali had not been charged or convicted of anything, the New York State Athletic Commission suspended his license.  Ali then refused to be inducted, and a jury in the Southern District of Texas found him guilty of violating the Selective Service Act.  Ali was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment and a fine of $10,000.  The Fifth Circuit affirmed, and Ali petitioned the United States Supreme Court for certiorari.

While his petition was pending, the government revealed that Ali had been “overheard” in five wiretapped telephone conversations in connection with a foreign intelligence investigation.  The Supreme Court vacated his conviction and remanded for a determination of whether the conviction had been tainted by the electronic surveillance.  But Ali was again convicted by the district court, and that conviction was again affirmed by the Fifth Circuit, and Ali again filed for certiorari in the Supreme Court.

During this period, Ali also tried to get back into the ring.  He sued the New York State Athletic Commission in an effort to get a license, but Judge Marvin Frankel dismissed his complaint.  Ali then amended his complaint to add an Equal Protection claim, and the case was reassigned to Judge Walter Mansfield.  Judge Mansfield found that the Commission’s decision to deny Ali a license because of his felony conviction was arbitrary and not reasonably related to any lawful purpose.  Judge Mansfield pointed out that the Commission had granted licenses to 94 felons in recent years, including persons convicted of “such anti-social activities as second degree murder, burglary, armed robbery, extortion, grand larceny, rape, sodomy, aggravated assault and battery, embezzlement, arson, and receiving stolen property.”  Ali v. Div. of State Athletic Comm’n, 316 F. Supp. 1246 1249 (S.D.N.Y. 1970).

Ali was back in business.  He won several fights and then fought heavyweight champion Joe Frazier on March 8, 1971, in what was billed as “The Fight of the Century.”  The fight was close, but Frazier won a unanimous decision after flooring Ali with a hard left hook in the fifteenth round.  After the fight, Frazier spent three weeks in the hospital, but he was still heavyweight champion.  It was Ali’s first professional defeat.

Ali was back in the legal arena three months later, however, and this time he won his battle in the Supreme Court.  In Clay v. United States, 403 U.S. 698 (1971), the Supreme Court reversed Ali’s conviction on the ground that the record upon which the denial of Ali’s application for conscientious objector status was based was inadequate.  The draft board left him alone after that, and President Gerald Ford eventually invited Ali to the White House.  At one point, Ali was asked whether he was planning to sue those who tried so hard to keep him out of boxing, and he responded: “No.  They only did what they thought was right at the time.  I did what I thought was right.  That was all.  I can’t condemn them for doing what they think was right.”  Quintana, Muhammad Ali:  The Greatest In Court, 18 Marq. Sports L. Rev. 171, 194-95 (2007).

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