While Muhammad Ali left an indelible and undeniable mark on the world, and while he deserved most of the honors he received, there's always been one honor he got that I, admittedly, have always had a problem with. He's had streets named for him.
This is a street sign designating Muhammad Ali Avenue in Newark, New Jersey, which until 1978 had been named Waverly Avenue. In Ali's hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, Walnut Street and Michigan Drive were named Muhammad Ali Boulevard that same year, when the Greatest was 36 years old and still active in the ring.
Again, let me stress this. I think Ali was a great athlete and a great man. That goes without saying. But I didn't like the idea of naming streets after him and I still don't, mainly for two reasons. First of all, the streets in Newark and Louisville were named for Ali while he was still alive. We don't put living people on stamps and coins in this country, and we shouldn't honor living people by putting their names on streets and buildings either. Second of all, I've always been against the idea of naming any street, in any town, after an athlete or an entertainer. Athletes and entertainers are pop-cultural figures, and it always seemed inappropriate to me to name a street after icons of popular culture because popular culture is very much of its time and the legacies of pop-culture icons tend to diminish somewhat over time. Streets, I believe, should be named after statesmen and scientists and the like, historical figures whose legacies are more likely to last far beyond their own times. If Baltimore, for example, renamed a street Michael Phelps Boulevard, I would object to that, because he's an athlete and because he's still alive. Hoboken has a Frank Sinatra Drive, and I object to that as well. At least the streets named for Ali in Louisville and Sinatra in Hoboken are geographically relevant, as Ali and Sinatra came from those respective towns, and, of course, Michael Phelps is from Baltimore. But what does Ali have to do with Newark?
Okay, you might ask, what does George Washington have to do with Chicago, a city that has a Washington Street but was not founded until Washington - who never ventured west of the Appalachians - had been dead for 34 years? And what does he have to do with the many cities and towns he never visited that have streets named for him? Why name those streets for Washington? Because George Washington was the Father of Our Country and the first U.S. President. Certainly Washington deserves such honors for getting the nation up and running, just as Martin Luther King, Jr. deserves streets named for him for his contributions to public life. In fact, there should be plenty of streets named for Dr. King, because he marched in more cities than Washington slept in. Not so coincidentally, Washington and Dr. King are the only two American individuals honored with federal holidays.
Streets are universal public spaces, used and employed by everyone. But not everyone likes boxing or big-band jazz, and so the idea of naming any street after a pop-cultural figure is sort of absurd. And if Bill Bradley ever gets a street named for him, I hope it's for his public service as a U.S. Senator, not for his employment with the New York Knicks. However, having said all that, it makes perfect sense to name arenas after athletes, because, well, that's where they achieved their fame and reputation. But if they're still alive, well, it's best to wait until after they're gone, because living people can never have their lives properly assessed when they still have some time ahead of them. That's precisely why George Washington didn't want himself for any other living person to be pictured on U.S. coins and why that standard was extended to postage stamps.
So why not name an arena for Ali - namely, the arena in Louisville, where his memorial service was held? A name like Muhammad Ali Arena would be a better name than the name that Louisville venue currently bears - I am not making this up, and you can look it up on Google if you don't believe me - the KFC Yum! Center (after Kentucky Fried Chicken, natch).
And don't get me started again on corporate naming rights.