Ali-ListonThe Greatest died this past Friday. There is only one man in my lifetime who earned that sobriquet and it was Muhammad Ali. Ali was the greatest sportsman in my lifetime and in 1999, he was named by the editors of Sports Illustrated magazine, as their selection of the Sportsman of The Century. With a unique combination of skill, style and character, the Greatest became a three-time heavyweight champion and the most adored athlete, literally, across globe.

I once saw Ali fight, in Houston in 1971, after his first fight against Joe Frazier. He fought in the Astrodome against Buster “The Mountain” Mathis, literally a mountain of a man who came into the fight at 6’ 3” and 256lbs. For the boxing match, my grandfather and I were really too far away to see much of the action but Ali won a unanimous decision in 12 rounds. Yet I did get to see a much better view of Ali when my grandfather took me to his public sparring rounds in the days leading up to the fight. I was simply amazed by the speed in Ali’s footwork and hands. And of course, he put on a show for the crowd, as much as anything else, with his promise “This will be Buster’s last stand. I’m gonna wipe him out.”

Yet as great as Ali was a boxer, it was on the social and political stage his legacy was cemented. His conversion to the Nation of Islam and later Islam was one of the first by a major US sports figure. His refusal to be inducted into the draft, during the Vietnam War, based on his status as a conscientious objector was highly controversial at the time and still resonates to this day. Ali stated: “War is against the teachings of the Qur’an. I’m not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or The Messenger. We don’t take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers.”

It was this refusal to step forward when his name was called by the US that resonated most greatly in the home I grew up in. Indeed it was my father who held Ali in the greatest regard. It might seem that a man who had served in World War II, the Korean War and was still in the reserves at that time would not feel that Ali was a positive role model. However, my father had the greatest admiration for Ali who, when not only his livelihood but also his freedom was on the line, took a stand. Ali could have taken the oath but made the conscious decision to do good rather than do well.

At that time there were a fair number of draft resistors in federal penitentiaries. Many of them were against the Vietnam War itself. Yet Ali’s objection went further, against all wars and when the time came for him to put it on the line, he stood up for what he believed in. For his stand, he was convicted and his conviction upheld at the Court of Appeals. However, the Supreme Court reversed the conviction by an 8-0 ruling. Interestingly, the Supreme Court’s “decision was not based on, nor did it address, the merits of Ali’s claims per se; rather, the Court held that since the Appeal Board gave no reason for the denial of a conscientious objector exemption to Ali, and that it was therefore impossible to determine which of the three basic tests for conscientious objector status offered in the Justice Department’s brief that the Appeals Board relied on,” subsequently Ali’s conviction was reversed.

This single act by Mohammad Ali can teach us more about the courage to stand for your convictions. For any Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) or compliance practitioner there may well come a time in your career where you have to make a decision to take a stand. Chuck Duross has called CCOs and the corporate compliance function The Alamo in that it is the last line of defense that exists in a company to keep it from violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA).

With the passing of Ali, it reminds us all that there may come a time where you have to decide if you are going to do the right thing or not. Hopefully the decision to do right will not lead to your conviction and potential jail time as Ali faced. However there may certainly be consequences for continued employment with the company or even in the industry. To think CCOs are not blackballed is probably naïve at best. Yet Ali was willing to put his own liberty on the line when his named was called, standing up for what he believed.

Would I have been as courageous? While I would certainly hope so, I honestly cannot say if I would have had the courage Mohammad Ali did that day in 1966 when he refused to step forward. In the FCPA world, there are hopefully protections in place for CCOs or compliance professionals who do step forward to say no. There are now even whistleblower awards to CCOs who have tried to do right by reporting compliance failures internally and have been rebuffed. They later went to the government and were rewarded as a part of the final settlement.

For a CCO I can think of no better example of a man who stood up for his principles when the price was his freedom – here’s to The Greatest.


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© Thomas R. Fox, 2016