Sports have played a huge role in some of the most influential moments in societal history. Its one of the reasons I gravitated to sports – athletes have the voice in society to create social change. This list will pay homage to the top 10 most influential figures in sports history.
10. Bill Russell
Bill Russell is considered one of the top-five players to ever step foot on an NBA court. An 11-time NBA champion and 5-time MVP, Russell was the star of the NBA in the 1960s. However, Russell’s greatness didn’t stop when he stepped off the court. Instead, Russell became one of the most prominent figures fighting for civil rights in the 1960s. Inspired by the racism he experienced by Boston Celtics fans, Russell participated in the March on Washington in 1963. After the assignation of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, Russell was inspired to join the crossfires of Jackson, Mississippi. Furthermore, Russell was visible alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X in many protests across the nation.
What makes Bill Russell so unique is that this came in the face of fan criticism, threats on his family’s lives, FBI surveillance, and possible career termination. Bill Russell was willing to lose everything including his reputation and basketball legacy, all for the fight for racial equality.
Bill Russell took part in the March on Washington in 1963. He's still speaking out for social change 54 years later. pic.twitter.com/JpvzwGtntH
— Adam London (@_adamlondon) September 26, 2017
9. Billie Jean King
Billie Jean King’s activism and bravery transformed tennis and kickstarted Title lX conversations around the country. In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, tournament payouts for female tennis players were substantially less than their male counterparts. King experienced this firsthand when she received $15,000 less than men’s champion Ilie Nastase after they both won the same tournament. Realizing the inequality, King spent her entire career fighting for equal pay in tennis.
King’s fight culminated in the infamous battle of the sexes tennis match in 1973. 90 million people tuned in to watch King face tennis legend Bobby Riggs who claimed the women’s game was inferior to the men’s game. With the pressure of the future of women sports on her back, King triumphed, easily beating Riggs. In 2009, Billie Jean King was gifted the Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama for her work and advocacy on behalf of the LGBTQ community and female equality. Overall, Billie Jean King is a tennis legend for her work on and off the court.
— American History TV (@cspanhistory) September 20, 2017
8. Arthur Ashe
“From what we get, we can make a living. What we give, however, makes a life.” These were the words of tennis legend Arthur Ashe, a leading activist against racial inequality. Some of Ashe’s most visible moments were his time as an activist. At the peak of his career, he was fired as captain of the US Davis Cup Team after teammates became uncomfortable with his activism. In 1992, Ashe shocked the world by attending a march to denounce the Bush administration’s discriminatory treatment of Haitian refugees. The next day later, Ashe suffered a heart attack from exhaustion. Ashe, along with Billie Jean King, transformed tennis into a sport committed to activism and social change.
Most notable is Ashe’s commitment to HIV/AIDS. After contracting the virus during a blood transfusion, Ashe told reporters in 1992 that he had contracted AIDS. In the few months he had left, Ashe poured countless amounts of money and resources to the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of Aids and the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health. He publicly criticized the U.N. for their lack of funding for the AIDS epidemic. Despite his battle with AIDS, Ashe stated that the hardest thing he’s had to deal with is being a black man in America.
"My potential is more than can be expressed within the bounds of my race or ethnic identity."
Arthur Ashe always stood for what was right. On his birthday we remember a champion and, more importantly, a pioneer. pic.twitter.com/3Zn7EdgEIQ
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) July 10, 2020
7. LeBron James
LeBron James is one of the most influential athletes of all-time. While being gifted on the court and having a legion of fans declare him the greatest basketball player of all-time, LeBron James is no amateur to the spotlight. Holding the crown of “King James”, LeBron has held the burden of responsibility with dignity and courage. From his countless tweets condemning hate speech and promoting equality to his public displays of support against police brutality (I Can’t Breathe Shirts), James has continuously fought for equality.
James’ greatest accomplishment is his fight for equality of education and opportunity. In 2018, the LeBron James Family Foundation and Akron Public Schools opened the I Promise School. Granting free tuition, uniforms, bicycles, transportation, meals, GED and job placement for parents, and guaranteed free tuition to the University of Akron, the I Promise School has taken some of the most at-risk students and created a model for public education in America. A new great will take LeBron’s crown, but his I Promise School will stand the test of time.
LeBron James' documentary series "I PROMISE" will be premiering on Quibi on April 6, 2020. The 15-episode series chronicles the first year of LeBron's public I PROMISE school in Akron, which opened in 2018. Check out the trailer for @KingJames' series: pic.twitter.com/28epkQ0nEy
— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) March 31, 2020
6. Magic Johnson
NBA global superstar Magic Johnson became the global face of HIV/AIDS overnight. In one of the most public news conferences in sports history, Magic Johnson declared that he had contracted HIV. With the lack of concrete knowledge of the disease, NBA players didn’t want to be around Johnson while others feared he would die. A forced retirement later, Johnson channeled his energy into HIV/AIDS awareness. Johnson established the Magic Johnson Foundation and served on George Bush’s National AIDS Commission.
However, it hasn’t stopped with global AIDS awareness. Magic Johnson has invested millions into low-income communities in Detroit, LA, and other cities across the country. He continues to use his voice as a platform to inspire social change in America. Johnson’s influence in his communities combined with his bravery to publicly announce his AIDS diagnosis in front of millions puts him on this list.
Magic Johnson’s HIV announcement not only changed sports — it shook the world pic.twitter.com/wjPvT7ZO0D
— NowThis (@nowthisnews) January 18, 2018
5. Caster Semenya
“I am Mokgadi Caster Semenya. I am a woman and I am fast.” Caster Semenya is one of the most inspirational and influential athletes of all-time. After dominating the woman’s 800 meters which included a gold medal in the 2016 Olympics, Semenya drew speculation rose amongst fans, fellow competitors, and the IAAF. Amongst their speculation was the fact that Caster Semenya was not a female. Intense online bullying soon occurred, with truly hateful speech being directed at Semenya. Semenya never wanted to headline debates on gender politics, feminism, or race. She simply wanted to run. However, she graciously accepted the role of leading the fight for gender equality.
What’s great about Caster Semenya is that she has used her platform to inspire a generation of women, especially from third-world countries that they can the top of your profession with hard work and dedication. In addition, she also showed countless women that you can overcome the hate and negativity of those around you. Her graceful message and enthusiasm for running is one of the greatest stories of the 21st century.
4. Jackie Robinson
Jackie Robinson joins this list as he and Brooklyn Dodger’s General Manager Branch Rickey broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier. Fresh off the United States’ success in World War ll, Rickey, who was white, believed it was the perfect time to integrate the game of baseball. For Rickey, Jackie Robinson was the perfect representative. Robinson excelled in black baseball leagues displaying an elite bat speed, a high baseball IQ, and a great defensive game. Also, Robinson was very likable, showing an ability to get along with anyone in any situation.
Ultimately, Robinson’s success in black baseball leagues translated to Major League Baseball. He was easily the best second baseman, leading the league in hits, runs, doubles, triples, and stolen bases. After Robinson’s success, the league began to integrate more black players into the league. Robinson changed the way baseball was viewed in America and inspired millions of black children that anything is obtainable. Overall, Robinson’s legacy is spoken about to this day.
Jackie Robinson was much bigger than baseball. Check this out. #jackierobinson #negroleagues #changeagenthttps://t.co/GjH9fsPBLw@JRFoundation @Bill_ESPN @PhilHecken @teambrwnapparel @LouciferOlsen pic.twitter.com/x7o739gCVw
— The Other Boys Of Summer (@NegroLeagueFilm) July 14, 2020
3. Jesse Owens
Jesse Owens is the quintessential All-American hero. A track and field star in the United States, Owens made history when he broke five world records in 1935. In 1936, he defied Adolf Hitler.
Heading into the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany, Adolf Hitler had hoped the games would be an opportunity to highlight to the world that the Aryan race was superior to others. Putting on a huge spectacle in Berlin, Hitler condemned the United States for including black athletes on their Olympic roster. As he looked down from his booth, Hitler witnessed Jesse Owens win five gold models and break two Olympic records. To Hitler’s dismay, Owens won the German crows who emphatically cheered for Owens’s accomplishments. Owens’s bravery and belief in himself when others doubted his ability is still told to this day. Overall, Owens, from small-town Oakville, Alabama was the man who defied Hitler.
81 years ago today, Olympian Jesse Owens won his fourth Gold Medal in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. pic.twitter.com/H2Ow6El6HV
— AFRICAN & BLACK HISTORY (@africanarchives) August 9, 2017
2. Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali has to make the list as he is one of the most visible and influential sports figures of all-time. Nicknamed the “Greatest” across all sports, Ali was not only a prolific boxer but a man that stood up against social injustices that plagued the 60s decade. At the height of his boxing career, the former heavyweight champion created nationwide controversy when he refused induction into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. Alluding to the fact that people with money were able to avoid the draft while blacks and other minorities were forced to fight a war they didn’t care about, Ali turned many heads. However, these heads turning weren’t in support of Ali.
Ultimately, Ali was stripped of everything. Arrested for draft evasion and his boxing titles and fighting license suspended, Ali was forced to suspend his career. Yet, public sentiment surrounding the Vietnam War waned and the Supreme Court overruled his conviction. Afterward, Ali came back to boxing even stronger beating George Foreman and reclaiming the World Heavyweight championship.
— Muhammad Ali (@MuhammadAli) July 8, 2020
1. Springboks Rugby Team
The Springboks Rugby Team is one of the most influential team’s in all of sports given their role in uniting a divided South Africa. The Springboks Rugby Team was mainly followed by white South Africans. Their roster was made up of entirely white South Africans except for one player. Yet, Nelson Mandela saw an opportunity to use the team as a platform to unite South Africans and end racial tensions in the city. Springboks captain Francois Pienaar was a fantastic leader for the team who, many of which, were scared of making a political stand at the 1995 Rugby World Cup. But as a captain, Pienaar rallied his team to support Nelson Mandela.
In one of the greatest moments in sports history, Nelson Mandela walked to the pitch in the final minutes of a South African World Cup Championship match. With a Springboks Rugby jersey in hand, Mandela shook the team’s hand while the team cheered on Mandela, South Africa’s first black president. Surprisingly, the crowd roared to life cheering for Mandela and the team, both of which brought so much pride to South Africa. It took so much courage from the team to support Mandela on the national stage given he lacked the support of white South Africans. Overall, they had to make the top of the list for playing a huge part in the healing of a nation.
A modern take on one of the greatest tournaments in our sport's history.
— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) August 20, 2019