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Muhammad Ali’s Principles are a Guide for the Athlete Humanitarian, Athlete Mentor and Athlete Activist

Eli A. Wolff, Power of Sport Lab

Mary A. Hums, University of Louisville


It is a critical time for athletes to use the power of their voices to bring about positive change in the world. Many athletes are wondering what they can do, how they can take a stand, and if their voices and activism really make a difference. Muhammad Ali’s conviction to stand up to inequalities in the world took moral courage, but he knew he could not sit by idly on the sidelines. Because of his recognition as an athlete, he felt he had a responsibility to step up and speak out. Muhammad Ali set an example of what it means to be a humanitarian, mentor and activist.

What makes an athlete humanitarian? What guides an athlete mentor? And what is a framework for an athlete activist? We believe that Muhammad Ali’s core principles – Respect, Confidence, Conviction, Dedication, Spirituality and Giving — provide a useful and practical lens for the athlete humanitarian, the athlete mentor, and the athlete activist. The principles by which Ali lived are particularly timely and relevant today, and can hopefully be utilized by past, current and future athletes.

The Muhammad Ali Center hosts their annual Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Awards, collaborates on the ESPN Ali Humanitarian Award, airing on June 21 on ESPN at 9:00pm ET.  The Center also organizes the Athletes and Social Change Forum to address social justice, activism and human rights. Co-hosted with Mentor National this year, the theme for the 2020 Forum is mentoring and will take place virtually July 9-10, on a free Zoom webinar platform. For more information and to register, visit,

The Ali Center also amplifies the message of International Mentoring Day on January 17, Muhammad Ali’s birthday, which coincides with National Mentoring Month organized by Mentor National. In this short article, we hope to further examine and illuminate the Ali principles and how they provide a guide for the athlete humanitarian, athlete mentor and athlete activist.

Ali’s  Six Core Principles

Respect (Compassion, Empathy)

Respect means compassion and empathy, both of which are central to the work and engagement of an athlete humanitarian. Respect is also critical for an athlete mentor as a mentor must build trust and respect with their mentees. Respect, compassion and empathy are also essential for an athlete activist. An athlete activist’s work aims to promote respect and dignity for all. Without respect as a core principle, an athlete humanitarian, athlete mentor, and athlete activist cannot achieve maximum impact. Muhammad Ali lived his life with respect, compassion and empathy for others, which in return, brought him respect, compassion and empathy from others.

Confidence (Platform)

Confidence is essential for the athlete humanitarian to be aware, willing and steadfast in utilizing their platform to engage others. Confidence is an important element for an athlete mentor, and a characteristic developed and shared between an athlete mentor and their mentees.  Confidence is important for an athlete activist as it is needed to stand up and speak up for social justice and human rights. Muhammad Ali displayed confidence in many different ways—both loudly and softly. Ali’s words and actions evoked tremendous confidence, and his legacy in this area is a guide for the athlete humanitarian, the athlete mentor, and the athlete activist.

Conviction (Passion, Authenticity)

Conviction involves a display of passion and authenticity and is key for the athlete humanitarian. An athlete humanitarian needs to display sincere conviction in order to be taken seriously.   Similarly, athlete mentoring relationships thrive from deep conviction as authentic relationships bring passion and energy to the mentoring experience. Conviction is central for athlete activism since raising awareness, changing hearts and minds and believing passionately are central to the ethos of activism. Muhammad Ali displayed conviction, passion and authenticity in his work as a humanitarian, mentor and activist. Ali lived each and every day with conviction with a goal of making the world a better place.

Dedication (Long Term Commitment)

An athlete humanitarian must be dedicated and committed to working and engaging for the long-term. Similarly, an athlete mentor also must display dedication and long-term commitment in order for their mentee relationships to be fruitful for both the athlete mentor and their mentees. Dedication, endurance and long-term commitment are central for the athlete activist. An athlete activist recognizes that their work is more than a one-time visit or a photo opportunity, but rather entails hard work over years, decades and, yes, a lifetime. Ali displayed dedication and commitment throughout his life as a humanitarian, mentor and activist. Ali engaged at a young age and carried on his work throughout his life.

Spirituality (Inner Peace, Mindfulness)

Spirituality and inner peace are important as the athlete humanitarians need to be mindful and to take care of their own selves. The athlete humanitarian displays spirituality when they connect with the world through a broad view and understanding that is greater than oneself. Spirituality is also important for an athlete mentor since inner peace and mindfulness can be central to teaching and learning in mentoring relationships. Further, spirituality and inner peace are important as athlete activists need to be able to find balance and mindfulness. Ali found spirituality and inner peace as a central part of his life through his religion as well as in the way he connected and engaged with the world.

Giving (Service)

Giving is a central principle for the athlete humanitarian, athlete mentor and athlete activist. Giving and service are critical to the work and activities of the athlete humanitarian since service is at the heart of humanitarianism. For an athlete mentor, much can be learned and shared about giving and service. Giving and service are critical to athlete activists who give their voice to the service of social justice and human rights. Giving and service are not always highlighted enough in the athlete activism conversation but are critical components of an activist’s life. Muhammad Ali famously said, “Service is the rent we pay for our room here on earth” and Ali’s giving and service shone brightly throughout his life as a humanitarian, mentor and activist.


Examining Muhammad Ali’s principles provides a useful and tangible framework for the athlete humanitarian, athlete mentor and athlete activist. Clearly Muhammad Ali left a wonderful legacy through his principles. They define and shape what it means to be an athlete humanitarian, what it means to engage as an athlete mentor, and what it means as an athlete activist. Ali’s universal principles are now even more timely and needed than ever before.




Eli A. Wolff directs the Power of Sport Lab, a platform to fuel and magnify creativity, diversity, connection and leadership through sport. Eli is also an instructor with the Sport Management program at the University of Connecticut and is co-founder and advisor to the Sport and Society initiative at Brown University. His work has been at the intersection of research, education and advocacy in and through sport, with a focus on sport and social justice, diversity, disability and inclusion. Eli has co-founded Disability in Sport International, Athletes for Human Rights, the Olympism Project, and Mentoring for Change.









Mary A. Hums, Ph.D. is a Professor of Sport Administration at the University of Louisville. Hums has co-authored/co-edited 5 Sport Management textbooks, over 150 articles and book chapters and made over 200 presentations to various scholarly associations both in the United States and abroad. Her main research interest is policy development in sport organizations, especially with regard to inclusion of people with disabilities and also sport and human rights.