Throughout history, African American athletes have revolutionized their sports, completely changing the way they operate today. From being excluded from professional leagues to now making up the majority of players, Black athletes have risen to speak out and fight against the many social inequalities that our world has and still faces, using their platform for good. It is important to look back and celebrate those who have paved the way for athletes today.
While one article cannot possibly do a sliver of justice to the strides that African American athletes have made in the past century, this article attempts to highlight some influential African American athletes within sports.
Jackie Robinson was one of the first to break the color line in Major League Baseball. On April 15, 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers started Robinson at first base. The famed number 42 led the way for more than just African American athletes, proving that anyone could make it into the league and that the once exclusively white sport could become more progressive.
Although Robinson grew to be one of the most influential and beloved athletes in history, he faced countless acts of discrimination and hatred throughout his career. The majority of players and even his own teammates protested him even being a part of the team. Despite all of the hardships and barriers he had to face, Robinson was able to break through and show the world that professional sports would no longer be a place of discrimination and exclusion.
Boston Celtics center and later coach Bill Russell was another greatly influential figure in the world of sports. Russell was the first B
Black National Basketball Association (NBA) player to achieve superstar status. The five-time Most Valuable Player and holder of 11 championship rings is even regarded to be one of the most successful players in the history of the NBA. Russell is still remembered as one of the best rebounders of all time, and he quickly cemented his legacy in the books through his three seasons as coach of his former team.
Russell was a pioneer for Black athletes, becoming the first Black coach in all of North American professional sports and the first Black coach to win a championship. Russell is one of the most winning athletes of all time, even being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by former president, Barack Obama, in 2011 for his accomplishments in his career as well as the Civil Rights Movement. Although still, in nearly every professional league, Black coaches and other minority coaches are still heavily outnumbered by white men.
The sports platform has also proven itself to be a very effective way of highlighting social injustices. In the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, African American track athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously stood on the podium to represent more than their 200-meter achievements. The gold and bronze medalists each raised a gloved fist during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The two track athletes stated that the gesture was not a “Black Power” salute but rather a “human rights salute.”
These two athletes stood up for what they believed in and made a statement that went beyond just athletic achievement. This event still stands as one of the biggest political stands taken in sports history, and it greatly influenced athletes since then to speak up for what they believed in.
The aforementioned athletes have led the way for change, both inside and outside of sports, and many athletes today are able to use their status to become leaders on a global stage. Black athletes still face many injustices today, from unequal treatment in the media to racism from fans and spectators.
But athletes such as Lebron James, Colin Kaepernick, and Raheem Sterling – to name a few, have already taken political stands, reaffirming that their power transcends athletics.