25 Athletes Who Have Made a Social Impact in the World

    Many athletes play to win, to make money, to enjoy the limelight, to become champions, and for the love of the game. Others, however, like Colin Kaepernick, also use the spotlight they live under to illuminate mistakes they think need to be righted. Long before the controversial quarterback took a knee during the national anthem, athletes from all sports changed the world, or at least started a conversation, through the massive platform our culture provides its star athletes. See how these athletes have given back in their own way.

    last updated: July 20, 2020

    jesse owens

    At the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the son of a sharecropper and the grandson of a slave crushed Adolf Hitler’s hopes of proving that his Aryan athletes represented a world master race. Jesse Owens won four gold medals to become the most successful athlete in any sport at the entire Olympics, a record that would stand until 1984 when another African-American track and field athlete named Carl Lewis equaled him. Unlike white athletes of his caliber, Owens was not invited to shake hands with the President until 1976, when President Gerald Ford awarded him the Medal of Freedom.

    billie jean rey

    billie jean king was ranked no. 1 in the world in women’s tennis, she won 39 grand slam titles and 20 wins at Wimbledon. the most important number associated with her career, however, is 90 million. this was how many people saw the so-called battle of the sexes. In 1973, King’s lifelong passion for gender equality was thrust into the global spotlight when she accepted a challenge from former World No. 1 ranked male tennis star and outspoken male chauvinist bobby riggs for $100,000. she crushed him 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. The moment, following the passage of Title IX the year before, injected rocket fuel into the women’s liberation movement.

    jackie robinson

    The world of sports changed forever on April 15, 1947, when Jackie Robinson started at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Born to sharecroppers in 1919, Robinson became the first African-American to play major league baseball in the modern era, a moment that opened the floodgates for the eventual integration of all major sports. Although the Hall of Famer is one of the greatest and most socially important baseball players in history, his breaking of the color barrier triggered a cruel twist of irony: the end of the organizations known collectively as the Negro Leagues, one of the most successful Negro leagues. own companies from the beginning of the 20th century.

    althea gibson

    Born on a cotton farm in South Carolina in 1927, tennis great Althea Gibson is widely considered the Jackie Robinson of her sport. In 1950, at the age of 23, Ella Gibson broke the color barrier in tennis when she became the first black player of either sex to compete in the United States. Ella soon did the same at Wimbledon Nationals before becoming the first black player to win the French Championship in 1956. No black player had ever won Wimbledon or the United States. nationals, but in 1957 she won both. in 1958, she did it again. tennis was now for everyone.

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    muhammad ali

    when boxing champion cassius clay converted to islam and became muhammad ali, much of white americans were disgusted, as were they, by his outsized personality and his refusal to play the role of the humble champion. Always outspoken, Ali’s most controversial social statement was his stance against the Vietnam War when the war was still very popular. when he refused to submit to compulsory military service and declared himself a conscientious objector, ali said: “my conscience will not let me go shoot my brother or some darker people, some poor people starving in the mud, for the great and powerful America”. he was arrested, convicted, stripped of his title and denied a license to fight for years in the prime of his career. He remained a civil rights and anti-war activist until his death in 2016.

    mildred ‘baby’ didrikson zaharias

    mildred ‘babe’ didrikson zaharias is probably the greatest athlete you’ve never heard of and probably the most successful athlete of either gender in all of sports. she single-handedly won an Olympic qualifying event in track and field, scoring more points by herself than an entire team of 22 athletes. She then broke multiple world records at the 1932 Olympics despite only having recently started in the sport. After that, she turned to professional golf, where she became the first woman to compete in a PGA Tour event. She won 14 straight golf tournaments, including 10 on the LPGA, an organization she helped found. Paving the way for generations of women who refused to live up to society’s expectations of femininity, Babe was also a bowler, baseball player, basketball player, swimmer, diver, boxer, tennis player, pool player and world class cyclist. According to ESPN, when she was asked if there was anything she hadn’t played, she replied, “Yeah, dolls.”

    jim brown

    Cleveland Browns legend Jim Brown remains not only one of the greatest running backs, but one of the greatest football players of all time at any position. He transitioned to a successful career in Hollywood and, from at least the mid-1960s, used his celebrity to advocate for civil rights, human rights, and equality for black people in America. Although he has publicly stated that he personally would not have knelt during the national anthem, it is widely accepted that there would be no Colin Kaepernick without Jim Brown.

    martina navratilova

    Tennis great Martina Navratilova amassed too many wins, records and firsts to name here. Her prowess, her fierce style and her epic rivalry with Chris Evert helped bring women’s tennis to the forefront of American sports culture. In 1981, she came out publicly in an interview with the New York Daily News, making her the first true superstar to live openly as a lesbian. the moment destroyed a barrier, fueled a national discussion about sexuality and acceptance, and empowered a generation of female athletes and lgbtq+ people.

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    bill russell

    From the mid-1950s to the late 1960s, Bill Russell defined the Celtics and anchored one of the NBA’s most iconic dynasties. Much more than one of the greatest basketball players of all time, Bill Russell was also the NBA’s first bona fide black superstar. More importantly, he remains one of America’s foremost activist athletes. Russell participated in the 1963 March on Washington and spoke publicly for Muhammad Ali when he refused to fight in Vietnam, a terribly unpopular position at the time. Russell endured racism throughout his early life and even during his career in Boston. Throughout it all, as well as during his long retirement, he has always stood up for human rights and against racism on issues before he was popular in the mainstream.

    arthur ashe

    shortly after shocking the world by winning the first u.s. Outspoken and amateur Arthur Ashe, 25, became an instant star. A groundbreaking African-American athlete, Ashe was the first black player on the Davis Cup team and the only black man to win the Australian Open, USA. uu. open and wimbledon. From the moment of his first victory in 1968, Ashe spent the next 25 years using his celebrity to defend civil and human rights. After contracting HIV from a blood transfusion (he died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1993), he founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation to Defeat AIDS and worked to destigmatize the disease and people who have it.

    lebron james

    When LeBron James criticized President Donald Trump during an interview in 2018, Fox News anchor Laura Ingraham said he should “shut up and haggle.” Like many African-American activist athletes who came before, the NBA’s greatest player of his generation refused to let other people put him where they thought he belonged. In the wake of the George Floyd protests, King James joined other black activists and artists to form More Than One Vote, an organization dedicated to registering African Americans to participate in democratic suffrage.

    the 8th of syracuse

    although it was not an individual athlete who sacrificed a race to protest for social justice, the syracuse 8 (there were actually nine) functioned as a cohesive unit with a singular purpose. In the tumultuous late 1960s, nine African-American college football players met in secret to discuss the daily discrimination they faced at a university located high above the Mason-Dixon line: Syracuse University in upstate from New York. they signed a petition demanding equal treatment, things like access to academic tutors, actual medical treatment after injuries on the field, and permission to take calculus classes just like their white teammates. when coaches and administrators dismissed their concerns, they responded by boycotting an entire season. the repercussions were swift and harsh. They were widely reviled as ungrateful radicals and, like Colin Kaepernick decades later, their true NFL dreams were taken from them.

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    pat tillman

    many activist athletes have given up their public good standing, their athletic highlights, and even their entire careers for their beliefs, but few have given their lives. Pat Tillman was playing for the Arizona Cardinals when he turned down a $3.6 million NFL contract to enlist in the United States. Army shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Tillman joined the Army’s elite rangers and participated in the initial invasion of Iraq, a war that Tilman is now known to despise and consider illegal. he was eventually transferred to afghanistan, where he was killed in action. President George W. The Bush Administration and the United States Army fabricated a story about Tillman’s brave death at the hands of a ruthless enemy. What they knew then, and what the United States ultimately learned, was that the country’s most celebrated soldier was killed by friendly fire. his death in 2004 helped change attitudes about the war and about the definition of patriotism.

    kareem abdul-jabbar

    before he began publicly using the name kareem abdul-jabbar in 1971, lew alcindor was already a devoted activist for social justice. The man who would soon rise to NBA greatness boycotted the Olympics over its treatment of African-Americans in 1968 when he was still playing for UCLA as the most dominant college player in history. Four years earlier, in 1964, his fate was shaped when he witnessed a riot in Harlem, New York, sparked by the murder of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer. He decided at that moment that silence was not an option and remained at the forefront of black activism, and social justice activism in general, throughout his college career, his NBA career, and his life ever since.

    shirley muldowney

    Ask three people to name a female race car driver, and all three will probably name Danica Patrick. Patrick is undoubtedly the most successful woman in racing history, but she did it on the shoulders of Shirley “Cha Cha” Muldowney. Cha Cha began street racing in the 1950s and became the first woman licensed by the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) to drive a top fuel dragster. she went on to win 18 nhra wins in her career, three nhra world championships and one ihra championship. Known as the first lady of drag racing, cha cha shattered the glass ceiling of one of the most unique men’s sports in the world.

    johnson magic

    when magic johnson publicly declared in 1991 that he was HIV positive, the disease was still considered a problem for drug addicts and the gay community that was the result of immoral behavior. At the time, the Lakers greats became the public face of HIV/AIDS and humanized the disease for millions of Americans. Johnson has dedicated much of his life since then to working to educate, destigmatize, treat, test, and cure the disease. he remains the world’s foremost AIDS activist.

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    venus williams

    venus williams, one of the greatest tennis players in history, along with her sister serena, are credited with ushering in a new era for black female tennis players and female athletes in general. venus, however, did more than any other player to balance the scales off the pitch. Until 2007, men were paid more than their female counterparts at Wimbledon. All that changed when Venus Williams launched a public and ultimately successful campaign to shame the club from all over England into accepting equal pay between the sexes. In 2007, she was paid $1.4 million, exactly the same as Roger Federer. for the first time, a woman in tennis received equal pay for equal work.

    rudy galindo

    as the most decorated Latino in the us. In figure skating history, Mexican-American figure skater Rudy Galindo would have been a socially important pioneer no matter who he loved. In 1996, however, Galindo paved the way for a generation of LGBTQ+ skateboarders when he publicly declared that he was gay before the U.S. figure skating championships. A former skating partner of Kristi Yamaguchi, Galindo won the U.S. championships that year and won bronze at the world figure skating championships.

    colin kaepernick

    civil rights activist and former nfl star colin kaepernick joined muhammad ali and many others before him in sacrificing years of his athletic prime to take a moral stand, or rather a knee, to be more exact. When the former 49ers quarterback first knelt during the national anthem on a Friday in August 2016 to protest police brutality and black inequality in America, the move sparked a firestorm and sparked a global discussion. on human rights. Like virtually everyone who came before, Kaepernick was widely ridiculed, including by many who agreed with him in principle but found his protest choice disrespectful. In the wake of the George Floyd protests, however, the national mood has changed, Kaepernick has been widely vindicated in many circles, and there is talk that he could be welcomed back to the NFL once again.

    jack johnson

    In 1908, Jack Johnson became the first African-American heavyweight world champion in boxing history, but his impact on society went far beyond the ring. In his prime, Johnson was probably the most famous African American in the world and, among many whites, the most reviled black man in America. He defeated “Great White Hope” James Jeffries to become world champion, a moment that sparked race riots across the country, but that was only part of the controversy. Johnson was married to a white woman during the height of the Jim Crow era’s most violent period, a dangerous undertaking at a time when black men were routinely tortured to death for much less. In 1913, an all-white jury convicted Johnson of violating racial and miscegenation codes of “morality” of the day. Without apologizing, he fled to Europe, but eventually returned home and served several months in prison. he received a presidential pardon 105 years later.

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    ronda rousey

    In 2011, the president of the ufc, dana white, publicly said that women would never fight in his organization. A year later, in 2012, she signed Ronda Rousey, who in the years that followed would emerge as not only the biggest star in women’s MMA, but also the biggest star in MMA period. Today, women are as big an attraction as men and routinely headline UFC events. Women have participated in combat sports since time immemorial, but Rousey’s rise to fame and glory marked a milestone that transcended MMA. Suddenly, the phrase “fight like a girl” was no longer an insult.

    jim abbott

    jim abbott enjoyed a 10-year career in mlb, playing for various teams between 1989 and 1999. the pitcher was left-handed by necessity, born without a right hand. At a time when attitudes toward people with disabilities were already evolving, Abbott stood out as the most successful professional athlete with a significant disability in a major sport of his time, and perhaps of all time. a generation of people at all levels now had reason to believe they could do it too.

    tommie smith and john carlos

    decades before colin kaepernick took a knee, tommie smith and john carlos raised their fists. on Oct. On January 16, 1968, the two African-American runners stepped onto their Olympic podiums to receive their gold and bronze medals. as the star-sprinkled banner sounded, each raised a gloved fist in protest for black power and civil rights. Although they were finally readmitted to the sports world, the consequences were immediate. the audience erupted in racist jeers, the two were ushered out of the stadium, expelled from the Olympic village, and returned home to overwhelming jeers and death threats. It’s important to note that while he didn’t raise his fist, White Australian silver medalist Pete Norman did stand up with Carlos and Smith in protest of racism in his own country and in support of global human rights. Unlike the two Americans who continued their careers in the NFL, Norman was banned from sports in his country for the rest of his life.

    kathrine switzerland

    In 1967, no women had officially run the Boston Marathon, but runner Kathrine Switzer realized that the all-male tradition of the historic race was only a de facto rule; such regulation did not exist on paper. she applied for entry with the gender-neutral name k.v. switzer to secure an official number. In what is now an iconic image, race manager Jock Semple charged from the side and physically assaulted Switzer as she ran in an attempt to steal her race number. her burly and athletic boyfriend running next to her pushed semple away and switzer made history by finishing the marathon. In an era when banks could deny credit to unmarried women regardless of their financial status or insist that their husbands co-sign if they were, it was a monumental moment.

    miguel sam

    although he was a college star, defensive end michael sam was drafted by the rams in the seventh round of 2014, much later than expected. he played well in the preseason but lost his job to an undrafted rookie. the cowboys then signed him to their practice squad, but again, he never saw action. he retired in 2015 having never played a match. Although no one can be sure, Sam is on record as saying that he believes his sexuality kept him off the field. Before his short stint in the NFL, he came out as gay to his college teammates, who fully supported him. That makes Sam the first openly gay player to be drafted into the NFL, an organization that has long fostered an intensely macho culture that assumed gay men were the antithesis of football players. Sam by no means had an outstanding career, but he did force his sport to finally grapple with a fact he had long dismissed: gay soccer players are real.

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      This article originally appeared on 25 Athletes Who Have Had a Social Impact Around the World

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