A noble gesture for Michael Phelps?

Meet Ibtihaj Muhammad
Meet Ibtihaj Muhammad

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Meet Ibtihaj Muhammad 01:14

Story highlights

  • W. Kamau Bell: Michael Phelps, with 22 Olympic medals, doesn't need the additional honor of flag bearer
  • Wouldn't it be great if he gave his place to the reported runner-up in the vote, a hijab-wearing, African American fencer?

W. Kamau Bell is a critically acclaimed sociopolitical comedian, featured on the podcast "Politically Re-Active" on Panoply and CNN's "United Shades of America." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)Dear Michael Phelps,

Thank you! I really appreciate the fact that you have made -- or will make -- the right choice here. You haven't announced it yet, but I'm sure you will soon.
    I know you have a big machine behind you. With The Olympics coming up, it must be extremely hectic around you right now. It has to be difficult to contact all your trainers, coaches, business managers, talent managers, Hollywood agents, sponsors, counsellors, associated charities, foundations, staff, assistants, friends, family, boys clubs, and girls clubs to let them know that you have turned down such an honor.
    Obviously, I am talking about what I hope will be your decision to decline the position as flag bearer in opening ceremonies of the Olympics in Rio De Janeiro on Friday. While you haven't said this yet, I'm sure this is what you are going to do, because you are not only an Olympic hero, you are -- by medal count -- the Olympic hero. And yes, being asked to carry the flag is a big deal. I'm betting that even a star of your magnitude is still feeling the glow of being voted to carry the flag by your Olympic peers. But I know that you must know that there is a better choice to carry the flag -- the athlete who came in second to you in the vote for flag bearer, fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad.
    It shouldn't be a big deal for you to give up your spot. For one thing, according to the Los Angeles Times, the vote was close. So Muhammad must have lots of fans among the athletes. And also, let's be real here, Michael. It's not like you need the honor.
    With 22 Olympic medals, you are already the most decorated athlete in Olympic history. You already know how America feels about you. We even forgave that youthful indiscretion of being photographed smoking from a water pipe of the type that is often used for smoking marijuana. And we have forgiven those other youthful indiscretions (even the one that happened two years ago when you weren't that youthful).
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    What I'm trying to say is that as far as America is concerned, you are a golden boy ... literally. You getting the opportunity to carry the flag is like Michael Jordan getting a free pair of Nike sneakers. You are both the living embodiment of the "honor" you are getting. To put it another way, in the Make-Your-Own-Ice-Cream-Sundae-Bar of life, your sundae is lousy with hot fudge, butterscotch, strawberry sauce, whipped cream, nuts, sprinkles, extra scoops of ice cream, and so many Maraschino cherries that 5-year-old kids with mouthfuls of Maraschino cherries yell as you pass by, "THAT'S TOO MANY CHERRIES!"
    And that's why I would be proud of you for giving up your position to Ibtihaj Muhammad. Muhammad carrying the flag would be much bigger than your one moment. It would be a symbol for our country in this moment when we are mostly known for one of the most contentious, controversial, scandal-ridden, hateful, xenophobic, jingoistic, and just generally unlikeable presidential elections in recent memory. This is at a time when we could use some more symbols of unity and togetherness.
    Muhammad carrying the flag would be nearly a one-stop inclusion shop. Muhammad is an African-American, hijab-wearing Muslim woman who is also a world class fencer. Those are all groups that could always use some more love, acceptance, and respect from this country. (And yes, I'm including fencers in this group.)
    If (when) Muhammad carries the flag, that moment (and Muhammad herself) would grow into legend. We're talking bigger than just the Olympics.
    It will be cemented in history the same way Australian runner Peter Norman is cemented in Olympic history as the white guy standing stock still next to Tommie Smith and John Carlos in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. As Smith and Carlos stood with their fists in the air, Norman (very actively) didn't get in the way. And he even encouraged the moment by suggesting that Tommie Smith wear John Carlos' left glove when Carlos discovered that he had forgotten his gloves at the Olympic village. Thank you, Michael, for being the Peter Norman of this year's Olympics.
    Also it certainly doesn't hurt that Ibtihaj Muhammad's last name is the same as the first name of one of this country's most celebrated Americans, the recently departed Muhammad Ali. Ali was an Olympic athlete, and he has his own history-making, opening-ceremony moment. The image of Muhammad lighting the torch in Atlanta in 1996 was, like this will be, another important symbol of American attempting to bury its hatred of "the other."
    And while it didn't achieve that goal back then, that doesn't mean that we shouldn't keep trying. And if anybody knows about the importance of second chances, it's you, Michael.
    Now obviously, it's not as easy as you just stepping down. Muhammad must also want to take the honor from you. Like you, she's a highly competitive athlete. She may not want the victory this way, which would, of course, would be understandable. But I hope that she accepts the honor from you. The Olympics are great, but they only truly mean something when the moments that come out of them are bigger than the individual sports.
    Your stepping back will allow this moment to become something bigger than just another opening ceremony. No offense, but right now America has enough tall, successful, rich white guys hogging the spotlight trying to make America great ... again.
    Again, thank you again for stepping aside for Ibtihaj Muhammad. During these Olympics, you can win more medals to add to your all-time winning number of medals. But no medal will compare to making room for this.