Laila Ali salutes social activism of athletes with awards

FILE - In this July 10, 2019, file photo, Laila Ali arrives at the ESPY Awards in Los Angeles. Ali will host the Womens Sports Foundation awards show featuring Candace Parker, Tom Brady and Carli Lloyd. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, File) (Jordan Strauss, Invision)

NEW YORK – Laila Ali is applauding athletes who speak out about social issues. She thinks her father would, too.

Ali was to host the virtual Women’s Sports Foundation awards on Wednesday night, recognizing athletes and leaders working toward social justice and racial equality.

“I think all people should take a stand,” Ali told The Associated Press. “Whether they’re an athlete or not or a celebrity or not. Our voices, collectively, are what’s going to make a difference.”

WNBA players will receive the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award for raising awareness about the police killing of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, the hometown of her father, Muhammad Ali.

“I think he’d have similar feelings that I have,” Ali said. “I never like to speak for him. But I think he spoke so much for himself, that you can imagine how he would feel and what he would say. I think it is great athletes now are aware they can use their voice and they can make a difference.”

Former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns will be honored for her leadership in corporate America, along with Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians for his inclusive hiring practices. The event will also celebrate the 50th anniversary of the “Original 9,” Billie Jean King and eight other women who broke away from the tennis establishment to turn pro and help start the WTA Tour.

King created the Women’s Sports Foundation in 1974. The organization provides sports programming and grants for young athletes.

Normally, the annual WSF awards dinner would be held in New York. Ali, who went 24-0 with 21 knockouts in her boxing career, remembers fighting in front of her father at Madison Square Garden in 2006.

“Any time he was there, it was extra, extra special,” she said. “I could see that light in his eyes.”

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the award winners will be celebrated in a virtual event available for streaming on Yahoo Sports at 8 p.m. ET. It will feature Candace Parker, Tom Brady and Natalie Portman, a part-owner of the new National Women’s Soccer League franchise in Los Angeles.

Here are more thoughts from the 42-year-old Ali, who was featured on “Home Made Simple” on the Oprah Winfrey Network and is married to former NFL player Curtis Conway. They have two children and live in Los Angeles.


AP: The WNBA players spent their season highlighting the Black Lives Matter movement and seeking charges in Taylor’s death. What are your thoughts on athletes taking a stand on social justice issues?

ALI: A lot of times, when you disrupt the system that’s been in place many years, there’s going to be some noise, some people against. But as long as you’re doing the right thing, I believe you stand strong. That is how change has always been made. If nobody says anything, if nobody puts anything on the line or uses their platform, then change isn’t going to happen. So, I applaud all the women of the WNBA and encourage them and anybody else who wants to take a stand.

AP: It seems athletes can bring an awareness to a diverse audience that might otherwise not be in tune with the struggles of other people. Your father took a stand against the draft in the 1960s, citing his religious beliefs, and wasn't allowed to box for several years in his prime.

ALI: You look at Colin Kaepernick, when nobody was on the same page with him. That was a tremendous amount of courage that he had — he lost his livelihood for it. Now people are applauding him, but nobody is offering to give him his job back and all the money he lost for trying to do good. Every piece of the puzzle is going to make a difference. I think my dad would definitely have something positive to say about the athletes that are taking a stand.

AP: You have a long history with the WSF — on the board of trustees, a past president. Talk about the WSF programs throughout the country, especially in communities of color.

ALI: I do understand the importance of sports and how it uplifts us as people. I want women and girls to have all the same opportunities as anyone else. The WSF is really about unlocking the potential of every girl and woman through the power of sports. It resonates through me so deeply. So much comes from playing sports, the discipline, confidence, learning how to harness that power within to be successful in life.

AP: What are your workouts like now and what projects are you working on?

ALI: I have a heavy bag in my home gym. I’m actually going to the boxing gym lately, doing some sparring. Sometimes I get the urge to do a full boxing workout. The muscle memory is incredible. Sometimes, you kind of gauge yourself to see if you still got it. I found that I do. (laughs).

I did enjoy “Home Made Simple” for three seasons, the show went away unfortunately, with COVID-19. I'm focusing on my brand Laila Ali Lifestyle, nutrition products, skin care and spices. That keeps me really busy, on top of being a mom, having kids home and homeschooling. I do a lot of speaking and luckily, I’ve been able to do a lot of virtual speaking. We’ve got some shows we’re pitching. But the landscape right now is so crazy, you just don’t know what’s going to happen. So I’m kind of OK being home and focusing on things I haven't been able to put my time and efforts into.


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