Last December we all had to listen to presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump prattle on about how there was no such thing as a Muslim sports hero. Thankfully, the real estate mogul turned presidential hopeful has conveniently remembered one such sports hero just in time to snag some media attention. Trump praised the late Muhammad Ali as "a wonderful guy" in a tweet shortly after news of the boxer's death was made public. But many viewed the gesture as opportunistic given Trump's previous comments about the lack of great Muslim athletes.
When President Barack Obama spoke about national security in an Oval Office address delivered in the aftermath of the San Bernardino shooting, he directly criticized Trump's proposal to ban Muslim immigrants from entering the country:
But just as it is the responsibility of Muslims around the world to root out misguided ideas that lead to radicalization, it is the responsibility of all Americans — of every faith — to reject discrimination. It is our responsibility to reject religious tests on who we admit into this country. It’s our responsibility to reject proposals that Muslim Americans should somehow be treated differently. Because when we travel down that road, we lose. That kind of divisiveness, that betrayal of our values plays into the hands of groups like ISIL. Muslim Americans are our friends and our neighbors, our co-workers, our sports heroes — and, yes, they are our men and women in uniform who are willing to die in defense of our country. We have to remember that.
Trump was quick to retort with his own criticism, a bizarre tweet in which the Republican presidential candidate seemed to claim there was no such thing as a Muslim sports hero. "Obama said in his speech that Muslims are our sports heroes," Trump tweeted. "What sport is he talking about, and who? Is Obama profiling?"
It seemed surprising at the time that Trump had been so quick to forget the likes of Shaquille O'Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Mike Tyson (who had endorsed Trump only two months before), Aquib Talib, or Muhammad Ali, all of whom are well-known Muslim athletes. It was especially odd that Trump should forget Ali, a man he's repeatedly claimed was his friend. While it's unclear how deep the duo's supposed friendship runs, the two have met on multiple occasions. In fact, just six months before Trump's December tweet the real estate mogul posted a "throw back Thursday" picture of him presenting his "friend" Ali with the UCP's Humanitarian Award in 2001 to his official Facebook page.
Although one might attempt to argue Trump was never aware of Ali's faith, that doesn't seem to be the case. In a 1999 interview with Advocate magazine, Trump implied his friendship with Ali, an outspoken convert to Islam, gave him a greater appreciation and understanding of other cultures. "Maybe that's why I can count men like Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, and Sammy Sosa as my friends," Trump said. "When you hang with people who are different from you, you get an appreciation for other cultures."
Trump's forgetfulness of Muslim sports heroes came to an abrupt end Friday, however, as the presumptive Republican nominee offered a 140-character Twitter tribute to Ali shortly after news of the iconic sportsman's death was made public. Trump described the boxer as "a truly great champion and a wonderful guy," in a tweet posted to his official Twitter account.
More than likely Trump's December tweet was simply the product of an irrational need to deflect the president's sharp criticisms and steal headlines with his tweet-before-thinking style because if you can't beat 'em, deny, deny, deny.