The world of sports is no stranger to praising the advancement that African-Americans are constantly making. Whether its ownership, front office, agents or just an outstanding athlete, African-Americans know that none of what they have been able to accomplish at this level would be possible without the struggles, sacrifices and victories that many before them were able to make.
As Dr. King said in his I Have a Dream Speech, “We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back”, and that’s exactly what African-Americans have done in the world of sports.
So today, I wanted to reflect on 20 of the most important and influential African-Americans in the sports industry.
Courageously broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947 – a time when segregation was the social norm in America. Robinson’s impact and influence was so great that baseball has retired his No.42, and his name is evoked almost daily in sports circles. Not only did he break baseball’s color barrier, but he paved the way and became an inspiration for African-Americans in all walks of life.
2. Muhammad Ali
In the arena, arguably the greatest boxer in history. Outside the arena, a symbol of the controversial 1960s. Ali stood behind his beliefs and became a leader for racial equality and opposition to the Vietnam War. Among many things Ali changed how athletes dealt with the media and how the media dealt with athletes.
3. Jim Brown
He is best known for his exceptional and record-setting nine-year career as a running back for the NFL Cleveland Browns from 1957 to 1965. In 2002, he was named by Sporting News as the greatest professional football player ever. He is considered to be one of the greatest professional athletes the U.S. has ever produced. Brown remains one of the strongest voices in the African-American community and continues to work with young people in life-skills and anti-gang campaigns.
4. Jesse Owens
Not only an inspiration for African-Americans but for all Americans when he won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics in front of Hitler and his idea the blacks and the rest of the world were inferior to his “master race.” The Jesse Owens Award, USA Track and Field’s highest accolade for the year’s best track and field athlete, is named after him, in honor of his significant career.
One of boxing’s greatest fighters, Louis is best remembered for losing and then coming back to defeat German, Max Schmeling in 1938 – before America’s eventual involvement against Nazi Germany in World War II. Legendary sportswriter Jimmy Cannon once wrote that Louis was “a credit to his race – the human race.”
6. Michael Jordan
Quite possibly the best and most famous athlete of any color to ever live. His talent combined with his charisma, intelligence and business savvy made him, perhaps, the most marketable athlete ever. The sports landscape – particularly how players are used to pitch products – changed forever because of Jordan. Now the majority owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats; Jordan continues to have a billion dollar empire by being one of the only athletes whose name sells more than those still playing the game.
7. Wilma Rudolph
This classy track and field star won three gold medals at 1960 Olympics and became the chief reason why young black girls took up track and field in the generations to follow – an influence that remains strong to this day.
At the 1968 Olympics, these two track stars raised black-gloved fists during the U.S. national anthem at their medal ceremony to protest, in part, the poverty and treatment of black people in America. It brought the issue of race and discrimination into living rooms throughout the world in one of the most powerful demonstrations in sports history.
9. Arthur Ashe
Arthur Ashe, the only African-American man to win Wimbledon, was a staunch civil-rights supporter not only in America but internationally, including anti-apartheid causes in South Africa and the fight for rights of undocumented immigrants in the United States. He raised awareness of AIDS before he died in 1993 from complications of the virus contracted after a blood transfusion.
Despite death threats and harassment from racists, Hammerin’ Hank showed grace and class while breaking the Major League Baseball home run record held by Babe Ruth. To this day, Aaron continues to work as a baseball executive and ambassador to fight for the rights of minorities, particularly among baseball’s front offices.
Comparing baseball’s reserve clause to slavery, this St. Louis Cardinals outfielder refused to accept a trade after the 1969 season. Although he lost his case in the U.S. Supreme Court, his groundbreaking objection led players to fight the reserve clause and eventually gain free-agency rights.
The first African-American coach to win the Super Bowl remains socially active and is out front on the causes of African-Americans, faith and family. One of the most beloved figures in sports because of his humility, class, honesty and lifestyle. You can catch Dungy talking sports for NBC’s Sunday Night Football, or at the signing of one of his latest motivational books.
Love him or hate him, Don King is one of sports’ most controversial figures, yet there is no denying this hair-raising promoter has had more influence over professional boxing than any other figure during the past 40 years. His influence over the days when fighters such as Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman were at the top of the sport ultimately led to today’s massive purses and pay-per-view events.
Before there was Venus and Serena Williams there was Althea Gibson. Gibson was called “the Jackie Robinson of tennis” for breaking tennis’ color barrier. She won five Grand Slam events in the late 1950s, then went on to be a champion of youth sports programs and other areas of public service.
On his way to becoming the greatest golfer ever, Woods, whose father was black, single-handedly has made the sport, once followed almost exclusively by middle- to upper-class white society, popular among all races and socioeconomic backgrounds. In 2010 Woods’s career was derailed with mounting public opinion, which has resulted in a failed marriage, dropping sponsors and an inconsistent golf game. Unfortunately Woods has not been able to make that comeback yet, but with each tournament we are keeping hopes held high.
Earvin “Magic” Johnson has helped revive the NBA and make it the popular sports it is today. More important, Johnson became one of the first openly HIV-positive celebrities/athletes and has since become a leading voice and contributor in HIV/AIDS prevention, safe sex and other social causes. Since the NBA, Johnson has turned into an exceptional businessman owning everything from restaurants, to banks, to Starbucks coffee shops. Johnson recently caught headlines when he sold his shares of the Los Angeles Lakes to put money into bringing the NFL back to Los Angeles, and join a group to bid on buying the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Jack Johnson was the first African-American to win the heavyweight boxing title. His victory over James Jeffries on July4, 1910, sparked race riots through the country. Johnson was once called the most famous and most infamous African-American on Earth.
Ranked among the all-time greatest athletes in the women’s heptathlon as well as in the women’s long jump. She won three gold, one silver, and two bronze Olympic medals, in those four different events. Sports Illustrated for Women magazine voted Joyner-Kersee the Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th century, just ahead of Babe Didrikson Zaharias. And, ladies and gentlemen she did it without the performance-enhancing drugs that have ravaged track and field during the last couple of years.
Founded in 1927, this predominantly black team has entertained crowds of all colors, races, religions and nationalities with its unique brand of basketball that mixes incredible skill and hilarious shenanigans. The team has played more than 20,000 games in more than 100 countries and remains a top draw wherever it goes.
The founder of BET (Black Entertainment Network) became the first African-American to own a major sports franchise when he led the group that acquired the expansion Charlotte Bobcats in 2004. Johnson has since sold his stock in the team to another amazing African-American and former NBA player, Michael Jordan. Other African-Americans such as Usher, Jay-Z, and Will & Jada Smith have all joined the ranks of ownership in major sports’ franchises.