Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight,” a superb docudrama about the 1971 decision by the United States Supreme Court (Cassius Marsellus Clay, Jr. v. United States, 403 U.S. 698, 1971) overturning the Champ’s conviction for evading the draft. The movie tells the behind the scenes story first revealed in the Woodward and Armstrong book “The Brethren.”
It is also fittingly the greatest sports law story of all time.
While a first rate cast of actors play the Justices and their clerks, the film wisely lets Ali play himself through the use of always welcome clips from his fights and interviews. As the film reveals, the initial conference vote was 5 to 3 against Ali with Justice Marshall recusing himself because of his role in the Solicitor’s office when Ali was first convicted. Justice John Marshall Harlan II, whose grandfather was the only dissenter in Plessy v. Ferguson, perhaps the Court’s most disgraceful decision, initially sided with Chief Justice Berger and was assigned the Opinion to affirm the conviction. His youngest law clerk, however, convinced the ailing Justice to change his decision. After another conference, the vote was 8 to 0 in Ali’s favor resulting in a startling Per Curiam Opinion and two Concurrences that quoted heavily from the Quran and from Ali, always an entertaining wordsmith.
So why is this the greatest sports law story? After all, nowhere in the Opinions do you find the words “athlete” or “sports” or “boxing”; and there is no mention that Ali had been a Champion or that his title had been stripped from him.
The clue comes in the scene when the Court votes to grant Certiorari. Responding to the obvious dismay of Justice Harlan, Justice Brennan says “Yes, that’s right we are hearing the case because the Petitioner is Muhammad Ali.” Ali is not just the most famous sports figure of all time; in those years, he was the most famous person on the planet. The Supreme Court heard the case, then reversed a conviction of a famous athlete who held a sincere objection to participating in an unjust war, precisely because he was a famous athlete who was a hero to so many.
What makes sports law so interesting is that cases involving athletes that have nothing to do with how they play the games have a heightened focus and interest not just by the Judges and lawyers but also by the general public. So Antitrust, one of the most complex areas of the law, becomes a topic of everyday conversation and an Ed O’Bannon, who started all of 34 games in the NBA, becomes a household name. The branch of government most citizens know least about is the Judicial System and yet it may have the most influence on everyday lives. It is a good thing to shine a light on the law.
And to see The Greatest in his prime.