By Yussuf J. Simmonds
Sports has been one of the leveling frontiers of equality among Blacks in America. Whenever Black athletes have been given equal access to any sport, they have always excelled, so much so, that sports have sometimes become a benchmark of excellence relative to other areas of progress in society for Black America. (Even among nations, fierce adversarial competitiveness in sports would sometimes act to buffer otherwise hostile intents.) So it is understandable that many Black athletes, acting as architects of social change, have often soared beyond their sport – above and beyond the call of duty – to advance social and racial changes.
A few years ago, using a soccer game between United States and Ghana as an example, Rev. Jesse Jackson said, “The metaphor is this: Ghana, a relatively small country, beat the USA. How could Ghana compete? Number one, the playing field was even; number two, the rules were public; number three, the goals were clear; number four, America didn’t have any more importance, because they’re rich and powerful, and Ghana didn’t lose because they were the poorer country and they were Black and poor. But Ghana showed up to play.” The analogy was clear and showed how sports can demonstrate teachable moments to the human family – among nations and among individuals.
In the December 30, 1999 issue of the Los Angeles Sentinel, Leland Stein III wrote, “While many Black Americans were fighting for civil liberties, the sporting community, in some ways, was ahead of that charge. It’s safe to say that African Americans’ inclusion in white-dominated sports helped in the acceptance of the Black person as having the necessities to do or compete or live in environments that white Americans deemed unacceptable to Blacks.”
Some of the men and women who rose to the top of their respective sports and used their fame and fortune as athletes, in different ways, to help others. As architects of social change, many athletes have demonstrated standards of excellence that have inspired their present generations and generations to come.
JIM BROWN (“CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR 75TH BIRTHDAY”)
“A legend on and off the gridiron field – actor, social activist and businessman”
Jim Brown, the all-American NFL Hall-of-Famer, has blazed an equally magnanimous path on and off the gridiron field as an athlete, businessman and an agent for social change. He was the king of running backs and a legend in American sports history. He was one of the first professional players to parlay his gridiron fame into off-the-field success for himself and most notably for others in the movies and in the community.
During the 1960s, Brown rallied a group of A-list athletes to support Muhammad Ali’s right to conscientiously object to serving in the military.
He also marshaled the same forces to confirm Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s inalienable right not to participate in the 1968 Olympics.
After football and a successful movie career, Brown founded Amer-I-Can Foundation for Social Change. Through it, Brown has confronted head on the element in society that imperils and paralyzes communities, stagnating growth and economic development. Using his own money, he created the Life Management Skills curriculum for young men and employed former gang members as facilitators of the curriculum as the Amer-I-Can Institute for Social Change. He was and still is and agent for social change in America.
Brown stands tall in the tradition of other great football players who were also agents of social change including Woody Strode and Paul Robeson, and he has blazed a trail for a generation who followed including Walton Payton, Deion Sanders, and Keshon Johnson.
KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR – basketball
After college and before he was drafted by the NBA for the Milwaukee Bucks, he had already won three NCAA championships. He was also chosen by the New York Nets because he was from New York but he went with the Bucks and became the NBA’s Rookie of the Year.
In May 1971, after the Bucks won the NBA championship, he adopted the Muslim name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, which translates: roughly “generous servant of the mighty one.” He was a dominant force for the Bucks and became NBA’s Most Valuable Player the following year. He won three MVP Awards in five years.
In 1975, Abdul-Jabbar went to the Los Angeles Lakers where he won his fourth MVP award. He began wearing goggles. While in L.A., Abdul-Jabbar started doing yoga in 1976 to improve his flexibility and for his physical fitness regimen.
Abdul-Jabbar retired in June 1989, after twenty professional seasons, and became known for his famous sky-hook. At that time, he held the record for most games played by a single player in the NBA.
JACKIE ROBINSON – baseball
Jack Roosevelt Robinson is recognized around the world as the first Black player to participate in Major League Baseball. Robinson born in Cairo, Georgia in 1919 was influenced to pursue sports by his older brother Matthew Robinson, which led Robinson to act on his passion of being an athlete. In 1945 Robinson played baseball for the Negro League with the Kansas City Monarchs, until 1947 when he was approached by Branch Rickey a representative of the Brooklyn Dodgers with an offer to play for the team.
Accepting this offer and promising not to retaliate against the horrid acts of racism that would come along with his career, Robinson became the first Black player to play in the MLB since 1889 when the league was first segregated. Robinson understood that there would be challenges that came along with this great responsibility of being the first of his kind to play in this major league, but as a civil right’s activist he knew he must let his tremendous talent act as a counterattack to the criticism he would face. Robinson spent 10 years with the Dodgers, a franchise who supported him as the skillful player he was. Even threatening fellow teammates that refused to play with Robinson, informing them that they would be traded before him.
Robinson’s poise on and off the field led people to look to him as a leader in the activism against segregation and racism. During his career as a professional baseball player he was highlighted around the nation for his position, making him a courageous icon for many. However, he had long before been a militant against prejudice. Prior to his participation in the MLB, Robinson was arrested for not moving to the back of a segregated bus while serving in the military during World War II. His charges for this crime were dropped, but this act was just one of many Robinson took to support his beliefs against discrimination.
Robinson was undoubtedly a wondrous baseball player, after all he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. However, he was also an admirable man, that served on the board of the NAACP until 1967. Following his death in 1972, his wife Rachel Isum began the Jackie Robinson Foundation which provides young adults with scholarships and mentors.
Robinson’s greatness has outlived him, in this foundation and in the history of baseball, making him an unforgettable legend.
JESSE OWENS – track
Jesse Owens was born in Alabama on Sept. 12 1913, the son of a sharecropper and grandson of a slave. His athletic career would begin in junior high, where Owens began to set amazing records with 6ft high jumps and making a 22 feet 11 3/4 inch leaps in the broad jump. He would continue to set records and win major events throughout his high school years. Owens was offered many scholarships but ended up attending Ohio State.
The world of track and field would witness a true Olympian in the making as Owens set three world records and tied for fourth at the Big Ten Championships in 1935. These accomplishments would set the stage for the 1936 Olympic Games.
The games took place in Germany, which was currently under the Nazi regime. In the midst of great racism and tension, Owens changed the world with his performance. He became the first American athlete to win four gold medals in: the 100m sprint, the long jump, the 200m sprint, and 4×100 relay. Owen’s achievemenst single-handedly wiped out Hitler’s theory of white superiority. His accomplishments would go unmatched until the 1984 Olympics where another Black athlete, Carl Lewis, would later match his performance.
Owens had been awarded many awards and honors including, the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Ford in 1976, the creation of the Jesse Owens Award in 1981, and a stadium, a road and a statue among other tributes, are in his honor. He used his victories to promote dreams and goals to Black youth all over. He spent most of his post-olympic career as speaking at colleges, churches and other organizations inspiring others.
MUHAMMAD ALI – boxing
The history of boxing can not be written without a chapter on Muhammad Ali. To take that point a step forward, Ali left such a great impact on the American sports scene that the history of sports in this country could not be written without him.
Boxers Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, and Sugar Ray Robinson set the stage for Ali, and when Ali arrived, he set the world on fire by dancing like a butter fly, stinging like a bee, and he made it loud and clear that he was the greatest.
Ali, who was born in Louisville, Kentucky, became a cultural icon around the world for various reasons.
Ali was the ultimate hype man, as he ran his mouth before a fight to draw more interest. Many people did not like the brash champion, but many loved a man who could talk the talk and walk the walk.
Ali backed up his verbal assaults by winning 56 of his 61 bouts, including historic victories against Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, and George Foreman.
Sports Illustrated named Ali “Sports Personality of the Century” in 1999 and he was also named “Sports Personality of the Century” by the BBC.
Ali was always a lighting rod for controversy. After winning the heavy weight championship from Liston in 1964, Ali revealed that he was a member of the Nation of Islam and soon after his name was changed from Cassius Clay to Muhammad (one who is worthy of praise) Ali (fourth rightly guided caliph). The religious changed turned Ali into one of that era’s most recognizable and controversial figures.
In 1966 Ali refused to serve in the United States Army during the Vietnam War. He was quoted as saying, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong. No Vietcong called me nigger.”
As a boxer, Ali will be remembered as a fighter who defeated every other great heavy weight in what is called the golden age of heavyweight boxing.
ARTHUR ASHE – tennis
Arthur Ashe set the world of tennis on fire back in the late 60s and 70s winning championships and setting standards for future players. He would pave the way that would eventually lead to two sisters that would follow in his footsteps and set the bar even higher than before, Venus and Serena Williams.
Ashe was born on July 10, 1943 in Richmond Virginia during the time of segregation. Despite having a frail frame, his natural prowess manifested the moment he picked up a racket. Ashe had a natural talent for tennis, which would garner attention throughout his high school years. Ashe eventually earned a tennis scholarship to UCLA where his tennis career really took notice.
In 1963, Ashe was the first Black to play on the U.S. Davis Cup Team. His distinguished career would continue to rise with winning the singles in the 1965 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the team competition for UCLA. Ashe claimed victory in 1968 at the U.S. Open and the United States Amateur Championships.
In the late 60s and early 70s, Ashe entered the pro circuit and would continue to blaze a trail for Blacks in tennis. He won a second singles competition in the Australian Open, Wimbledon in 1975 and the WCT Finals. Among many other firsts, being the only Black male tennis player to win singles at the Australian Open, U.S. Open and Wimbledon highlights Ashe’s career.
Ashe also used his status to fight for civil rights when denied entering the South African Open. He drew attention to apartheid and the civil injustices taking place at the time.
TIGER WOODS – golf
One of the greatest golfers of all time was born Eldrick Tont Woods on December 30, 1975 in Cypress, California. At a young age he was bestowed the nickname by which millions across the globe know him, “Tiger.”
His father, Earl Woods, introduced him to golf before the younger Woods was two years old. The child prodigy soon gained national exposure in 1978 when he appeared on The Mike Douglas Show to putt with Bob Hope. He made his first hole-in-one at six years old.
Woods’ amateur accomplishments are nothing short of impressive. In 1991 he became the youngest player ever to win the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship — an event he won a record three times. In 1992 he was named Golf World Player of the Year. He became the youngest player ever to win the U.S. Amateur Championship in 1994.
Woods majored in economics while attending Stanford University. During his time there he was named First Team All-American, won an NCAA Championship, and was named Pac-10 Player of the Year.
His first major tournament victory came in 1997 when he won The Masters at Augusta National Golf Club — a historically exclusive club that did not accept a Black member until 1990. The record setting victory was also marked by Woods’ insistence to be referred to not as African-American, but rather to be identified as a multiracial person. Woods’ father is of African-American and Native-American ancestry; his mother, Kutilda, is of Chinese, Thai, and Dutch ancestry.
Woods’ talents have proven to be very lucrative. Upon turning pro in 1996, he signed a then-record $40 million contract with Nike. He also became the first player to eclipse $2 million in single-season prize money. According to Forbes, he holds the distinction of being the first “billion-dollar athlete.”
It was also in 1996 that his Tiger Woods Foundation was established. According to its website, the foundation “has reached millions of young people by delivering unique experiences and innovative educational opportunities for youth worldwide.”
To date, Woods has 14 major golf championship victories. He is widely considered the favorite to break the record for most major wins, currently held by Jack Nicklaus with 18.
PELE – soccer (In Brazil, as in Latin America, soccer is known as football.)
Born Edison Arantes do Nascimento and affectionately known worldwide as Pelé (and is sometimes called King Pele); he is regarded as one of the greatest soccer players of all time. In 1999, he was voted the ‘Football Player of the Century’ by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics. According to football/soccer history, during his career, Pele scored 760 official goals in 1363 games, making him the top goal scorer in soccer history.
He is regarded in his native Brazil as a national hero for his accomplishments and contributions to the game of football. He is also known for his open support to improve the social conditions of the poor. During his career, Pele became known as “The King of Football” hence “King Pelé.”
Pelé retired from professional football in 1977 and has since become a worldwide ambassador for the sport. Presently, he is reported to be the honorary president of the New York Cosmos.
LISA LESLIE – basketball
Since in high school, Lisa wanted to play basketball so she decided to attend the University of Southern California from 1990-1994. During college, her basketball career took off. Leslie played a total of 120 college games and held the USC record for blocked shots in a single season. She became a member of the USA team at the 1991 World University Games, as the second leading scorer on the USA squad.
Leslie was drafted by the Los Angeles Sparks and helped the team make the playoffs five consecutive times. She was named the 2001 Sportswoman of the Year. She retired in February 2009.
LAILA ALI – boxing
Since hanging his gloves up, Ali has watched his daughter, Laila Ali, dominate the women’s division of boxing. She finished her career with a perfect 24-0 record with 21 knockouts and she was the biggest female star in the sport. A ideal of “like father like daughter.”
WILMA RUDOLPH – track
Born in Clarksville, Tennessee on June 23 1940, Rudloph endured polio, wearing a leg brace and living through a hosts of diseases.
When the leg brace came off, Rudolph entered into sports. She played basketball during high school, but her talent for track and field was apparent. She won a bronze medal at the 1956 Olympic Melbourne in the 4×100 team relays.
But it was the 1960 Olympic Games where Rudolph became “the fastest woman in history” winning titles in the 100m, 200m and 4×100 relay. She won three gold medals, the first American to do so in a single Olympic Games setting records in the 200m and in the 4×100 relays.
Her accomplishments got her into the National Black Sports and Entertainment hall of Fame in 1973 and the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1974. She made the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983, and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994.
VENUS AND SERENA WILLIAMS – tennis
Venus and Serena Williams came “STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON” and created a legacy that continued on the road that Ashe had blazed. The Williams sisters were coached by their father, Richard Williams and grew up in Compton, CA. They eventually moved to West Palm Beach to attend Tennis Academy.
Serena holds 27 Grand Slam titles, is No. 12 in the world in singles and No. 20 in doubles, and has won Wimbledon in singles more than once and two Olympic Gold Medals under belt. Serena also built a school in Kenya, the Serena Williams Secondary School in Matooni, Kenya, contributed to many at-risk youth programs and sent proceeds towards relief in Haiti.
Together, the Williams sisters have continued and gone beyond what Ashe established in his career. They have blazed a trail for future Black athletes to continue for years to come.