Most Influential Black Athletes of All Time
Sometimes athletes transcend sports. And sometimes sports transcend life.
In the face of overwhelming adversity and a society that didn't always want them to participate, the Black athlete in America has shown resilience over 100 years to help create bigger movements toward justice.
In honor of February's Black History Month, these are the most influential black athletes of all time.
30. Doug Williams
Born: Aug. 9, 1955 (Zachary, Louisiana)
High school: Chaneyville High School (Zachary, Louisiana)
College: Grambling State
Career: 11 years (1978-89)
Career highlights: Super Bowl champion (1988), Super Bowl MVP (1988), NFL All-Rookie Team (1978), two-time Black College Player of the Year (1976, 1977), three-time SWAC champion (1975-77), Black College Football Hall of Fame
Bottom line: Doug Williams is best known for his short stint with the Washington Redskins at the end of his career. In 1988, he led the franchise to a Super Bowl win and was named Super Bowl MVP, becoming the first Black quarterback to win a Super Bowl. It was a watershed moment in NFL history.
But this wasn't the first time Williams was a pioneer. He also was the first Black quarterback drafted in the first round of the NFL draft and turned around a moribund franchise in Tampa Bay, leading the Buccaneers to three playoff appearances in his first five NFL seasons.
Then he had a contract dispute with Buccaneers owner Hugh Culverhouse, did not play football in 1983 and bounced to the upstart USFL for two seasons. He returned to the NFL in 1986 and became an NFL executive after his playing days, mentoring many Black quarterbacks.
29. Bo Jackson
Born: Nov. 30, 1962 (Bessemer, Alabama)
High school: McAdory High School (McCalla, Alabama)
Sports: Football, baseball
Career: 7 years (1986-91, 1993-94)
Career highlights: MLB All-Star (1989), MLB All-Star Game MVP (1989)Heisman Trophy (1985), Pro Bowl (1990)
Bottom line: The promise of Bo Jackson's career and all the amazing things we thought he might do in the NFL and MLB came to a screeching halt with a catastrophic hip injury in 1991.
Before that, sports fans were able to witness something that really hasn't come along since — a true superstar in two professional American sports, with Jackson earning MLB All-Star Game MVP honors in 1989 and earning a spot in the Pro Bowl in 1990.
There was no bigger star in professional sports during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Say "Bo Knows" to any sports fans over about 40 years old, and you'll get the picture.
28. Ernie Davis
Born: Dec. 14, 1939 (New Salem, Pennsylvania)
Died: May 18, 1963 (age 23, Cleveland, Ohio)
High school: Elmira Free Academy (Elmira, New York)
Career: 4 years (1959-62)
Career highlights: National champion (1959), Heisman Trophy winner (1961), two-time NCAA All-American (1960, 1961), College Football Hall of Fame
Bottom line: Ernie Davis was a three-sport star in football, basketball and baseball and a high school All-American at Elmira (N.Y.) Free Academy before he was personally recruited by his hero, Syracuse running back Jim Brown, to come play for the Orange.
Davis became a legend and an inspiration at Syracuse as the first Black athlete to win the Heisman Trophy in 1961. He was the No. 1 overall pick by the Washington Redskins in the 1962 NFL draft. Davis took a stand, refusing to play for racist ownership and was immediately traded to the Cleveland Browns.
Tragically, Davis never played a game in the NFL. He was diagnosed with leukemia and died in 1963, at 23 years old.
27. Allen Iverson
Born: June 7, 1975 (Hampton, Virginia)
High school: Bethel High School (Hampton, Virginia)
Career: 14 years (1996-2010)
Career highlights: NBA MVP (2001), 11-time NBA All-Star (2000-10), two-time NBA All-Star Game MVP (2001, 2005), seven-time All-NBA Team (1999-2003, 2005), NBA Rookie of the Year (1997)
Bottom line: Influence is a crazy thing. Sometimes just being yourself can create it, which is the case of former NBA star Allen Iverson.
The No. 1 overall pick in the 1996 NBA draft led the 76ers to the NBA Finals in 2001 and was named NBA Most Valuable Player. "The Answer" stood just 6-foot and played with reckless abandon for someone his size, making him one of the most popular players in NBA history and one of pop culture's all-time greatest antiheroes.
Iverson did it on both ends of the floor as well. He led the NBA in scoring four times and led the NBA in steals three times. His influence was the measure for a whole generation of NBA players who followed him.
26. Mike Tyson
Born: June 30, 1966 (Brooklyn, New York)
High school: Tryon School for Boys (Johnstown, New York)
Career: 20 years (1985-2005)
Career highlights: Undisputed world heavyweight champion (1987-90)
Bottom line: Few athletes in the last 50 years have captured the public's imagination like "Iron" Mike Tyson. Tyson won his first 19 professional fights by knockout and became the youngest heavyweight champion of all time when he won the title by defeating Trevor Berbick in 1986 at just a shade past his 20th birthday.
Tyson's legacy as the came undone after he lost the heavyweight title to 42-to-1 underdog Buster Douglas in 1990. Tyson was convicted of rape in 1992 and spent three years of a six-year sentence in prison before he returned to win the heavyweight title in 1996.
25. Michigan's Fab Five
Names: Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King, Ray Jackson
Career: 2 years (1991-93)
Career highlights: Two-time NCAA runner-up (1992, 1993)
Bottom line: Five fabulous freshmen took over the basketball world in 1991, when University of Michigan head coach Steve Fisher went with a starting lineup of all freshmen — Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson.
The group led the Wolverines to the national championship game in back-to-back seasons, losing to Duke in 1992 and suffering a heartbreaking loss to North Carolina in 1993.
Their influence went well beyond just the games they played. The five players became icons because of their black socks and baggy shorts, along with how they embraced hip-hop culture.
Eventually stripped of all their accomplishments over NCAA violations, it's easy to say this group had more influence on the game than most teams who actually won national titles.
24. LeBron James
Born: Dec. 30, 1984 (Akron, Ohio)
High school: St. Vincent-St. Mary High School (Akron, Ohio)
Career: 19 years (2003-present)
Career highlights: Four-time NBA champion (2012, 2013, 2016, 2020), four-time NBA MVP (2012, 2013, 2016, 2020), four-time NBA Finals MVP (2012, 2013, 2016, 2020), 16-time NBA All-Star (2005-2020), three-time NBA All-Star Game MVP (2006, 2008, 2018), 16-time All-NBA Team (2005-2020), six-time NBA All-Defensive Team (2009-14), NBA Rookie of the Year (2004), two-time Olympic gold medalist (2008, 2012)
Bottom line: LeBron James already has established himself as one of the greatest basketball players of all time, winning four NBA championships with three different franchises along with four NBA MVP trophies.
James also has done something off the court that has made him the definitive athlete of his generation. He's become a global icon not only for his lucrative career as a pitchman but for his willingness to speak his mind about social issues.
James, who has earned more than $1 billion in contracts and endorsements, could walk away from the game as the NBA career scoring leader if he plays a few more seasons.
23. Wilt Chamberlain
Born: Aug. 21, 1936 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
Died: Oct. 12, 1999 (age 63, Bel Air, California)
High school: Overbrook High School (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
Career: 14 years (1959-73)
Career highlights: Two-time NBA champion (1967, 1972), NBA Finals MVP (1972), four-time NBA MVP (1960, 1966-68), 13-time NBA All-Star (1960-69, 1971-73), NBA All-Star Game MVP (1960), 10-time All-NBA Team (1960-68, 1972), two-time NBA All-Defensive Team (1972, 1973), NBA Rookie of the Year (1960), NBA 50th Anniversary Team
Bottom line: Wilt Chamberlain won seven scoring titles and set the NBA record by scoring 100 points in a game in 1960. That was also the year he won the first of four NBA Most Valuable Player awards.
Chamberlain's influence on pop culture ended up being much larger than the mark he made on the game of basketball. A Paul Bunyan figure, Chamberlain seemed capable of any physical feat. It's hard to believe someone ever lived such an outsized life.
Chamberlain died at 63 years old in his mansion in Bel Air, California.
22. Florence Griffith Joyner
Born: Dec. 21, 1959 (Los Angeles, California)
Died: Sept. 21, 1998 (age 38, Mission Viejo, California)
High school: Jordan High School (Los Angeles, California)
Sport: Track and field
Career: 9 years (1979-88)
Career highlights: Three-time Olympic gold medalist (1988), two-time Olympic silver medalist (1984, 1988),
Bottom line: UCLA sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner missed out on Olympic glory in 1980 after the United States boycotted the Summer Games, but she returned in 1984 to win gold medals in the 100, 200 and 4x100 relay.
FloJo’s success in 1984 built a tremendous amount of buzz heading into the 1988 Summer Olympics, and she became just as well-known for her provocative, unconventional clothing choices on the track — most notably the "one-legger" sprint suit and six-inch nails.
FloJo died in her sleep in 1998 at just 38 years old when she suffocated during a severe epileptic seizure.
21. Magic Johnson
Born: Aug. 14, 1959 (Lansing, Michigan)
High school: Everett High School (Lansing, Michigan)
College: Michigan State
Career: 15 years (1978-92, 1996)
Career highlights: Five-time NBA champion (1980, 1982, 1985, 1987, 1988), three-time NBA Finals MVP (1980, 1982, 1987), three-time NBA MVP (1987, 1989, 1990), 12-time NBA All-Star (1980, 1982-92), two-time NBA All-Star Game MVP (1990, 1992), 10-time All-NBA (1982-91), NBA All-Rookie Team (1980), NBA 50th Anniversary Team
Bottom line: Magic Johnson is perhaps the greatest point guard of all time, one of the most exciting, dynamic players in NBA history and a global sports icon.
Magic's rivalry with Boston Celtics forward Larry Bird, which started in the 1979 NCAA championship game between Michigan State and Indiana State, was what put the NBA on the path to becoming the global behemoth it is today, generating approximately $8 billion in revenue annually. Johnson was the guiding force behind the Lakers' "Showtime" era and led the franchise to five NBA titles in the 1980s.
His shocking retirement in 1991 upon learning he was HIV-positive also made global news and helped take down stereotypes around the disease. Johnson, who made less than $40 million during his playing career, now has an estimated net worth of $600 million and was part of an ownership group that bought the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2020.
20. Jim Brown
Born: Feb. 17, 1936 (St. Simons, Georgia)
High School: Manhasset High School (Manhasset, New York)
Career: 9 years (1957-65)
Career highlights: NFL champion (1964), three-time NFL MVP (1957, 1958, 1965), nine-time NFL All-Pro Team (1957-65), nine-time Pro Bowl (1957-65), NFL Rookie of the Year (1957), NFL 1960s All-Decade Team, NFL 50th Anniversary Team, NFL 75th Anniversary Team, NFL 100th Anniversary Team, two-time NCAA All-American (1955, 1956)
Bottom line: Considered by many to be the greatest football player of all time, Jim Brown is still the only player in NFL history to average over 100 rushing yards per game. In just nine seasons, Brown led the NFL in rushing eight times and was NFL MVP three times.
When filming the classic war movie "The Dirty Dozen" began to cut into the start of Cleveland Browns training camp in 1966, Brown was threatened with a fine by owner Art Modell. Brown responded by retiring from football.
Also considered perhaps the greatest lacrosse player of all time, Brown went on to have a lengthy film career as one of Hollywood's first Black action stars.
19. Texas Western's Historic Starting Five
Names: Willie Worsley, Orsten Artis, Bobby Joe Hill, David Lattin and Harry Flournoy
College: Texas Western (now UTEP)
Career: 1 year (1965-66)
Career highlights: NCAA champion (1966)
Bottom line: Perhaps the greatest on-court stand for racial justice in NCAA history came in the 1966 NCAA championship game. That's when Texas Western head coach Don Haskins led the first all-Black starting lineup to a national championship past the mighty University of Kentucky — an all-white team — in the final game.
The Miners went 28-1 that season and broke down all previous barriers that existed despite facing racism at every turn. Even after they won, it was still there, including being denied the traditional invite to "The Ed Sullivan Show" for the national champion.
The NCAA wouldn't even bring out a ladder for the team to cut down the nets, so they just held each other up on their own shoulders.
18. Jackie Joyner-Kersee
Born: March 3, 1962 (East St. Louis, Illinois)
High school: East St. Louis Lincoln High School (East St. Louis, Illinois)
Sport: Track and field
Career: 18 years (1980-98)
Career highlights: Three-time Olympic gold medalist (1988, 1992), Olympic silver medalist (1984), two-time Olympic bronze medalist (1992, 1996),
Bottom line: Jackie Joyner-Kersee participated in four consecutive Olympics and medaled in all of them, but the former UCLA basketball star's crowning achievement came at the 1988 Seoul Olympics when she won gold medals in both the heptathlon and the long jump.
In an interesting twist, Joyner-Kersee said she was inspired to try and excel in multiple track and field disciplines in elementary school after watching a made-for-TV movie about former Olympic star Babe Didrikson.
Joyner-Kersee repeated as the gold medal winner in the heptathlon at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.
17. Serena Williams
Born: Sept. 26, 1981 (Saginaw, Michigan)
High school: Driftwood Academy (Lake Park, Florida)
Career: 27 years (1995-present)
Career highlights: Seven-time Australian Open champion (2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2015, 2017), three-time French Open champion (2002, 2013, 2015), seven-time Wimbledon champion (2002, 2003, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2015, 2016), six-time U.S. Open champion (1999, 2002, 2008, 2012-14), Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year (2015)
Bottom line: The greatest women's tennis player of all time argument boils down to Serena Williams, Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova — and if you want to go by the numbers, it's Williams.
She's won 23 Grand Slam singles titles, which is the most in the Open Era and trails just Margaret Court's 24 titles.
Off the court, Williams and her sister, Venus, have been amazing ambassadors for the sport and have helped break down barriers facing Black tennis players for generations to come after them. According to Forbes, Williams has an estimated net worth of $200 million and earned $36 million in 2020.
16. Henry Aaron
Born: Feb. 5, 1934 (Mobile, Alabama)
Died: Jan. 22, 2021 (age 86, Atlanta, Georgia)
High school: Josephine Allen Institute (Mobile, Alabama)
Career: 22 years (1954-76)
Career highlights: World Series champion (1957), National League MVP (1957), 25-time MLB All-Star (1955-75), three-time Gold Glove Award winner (1958-60), MLB All-Century Team
Bottom line: Still the MLB home run champion in most people's hearts and minds, Hank Aaron holds the career record with 2,297 RBI and, in the greatest testament to his power hitting, 1,477 extra-base hits.
Born into abject poverty in Alabama, "Hammerin' Hank" honed his skills as a child hitting bottle caps with sticks and trying to craft baseball equipment out of whatever materials he could scrounge up.
Aaron received daily death threats as he approached Babe Ruth's home run record, but Aaron's grace in the face of pressure and racism on the way to passing Ruth is the stuff of legend.
That is why Aaron remains one of the most beloved athletes in sports history.
15. John Carlos and Tommie Smith
Names: Tommie Smith and John Carlos
High school (Carlos): Machine Trade and Medal High School (Harlem, New York)
High school (Smith): Lemoore High School (Lemoore, California)
College: San Jose State
Sport: Track and field
Career: 2 years (1966-68)
Career highlights: Olympic gold medal 200-meter dash (1968, Smith), Olympic bronze medal 200-meter dash (1968, Carlos)
Bottom line: As "The Star-Spangled Banner" played during the medal ceremony for the 200-meter dash at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos, both Americans, raised their black-gloved fists in protest on the medal stand.
Smith and Carlos, who both ran collegiately for San Jose State, became icons for the civil rights movement in America because of their protest — which they called a "human rights" salute. It quickly became one of the most overtly political statements in Olympics history.
Carlos and Smith were quickly vilified for their actions in the U.S., and Australian silver medalist Peter Norman, who wore a human rights badge to support his fellow medalists, was vilified in his home country. Smith went on to play in the NFL and Carlos in the CFL, and both were pallbearers at Norman's funeral when he died in 2006.
14. Jack Johnson
Born: March 31, 1878 (Galveston, Texas)
Died: June 10, 1946 (age 68, Franklinton, North Carolina)
High school: None
Career: 40 years (1898-1938)
Career highlights: World heavyweight boxing champion (1908-15)
Bottom line: Jack Johnson broke down boundaries as the first Black man to ever win the world heavyweight boxing championship, and held the crown from 1908-15, a time when documentarian Ken Burns said Johnson was "the most famous African-American on the planet."
Johnson's most notable fight was "The Fight of the Century" against James Jeffries in 1910, when Jeffries came out of retirement to "prove the superiority of the white race" and threw in the towel against Johnson after the 15th round.
Johnson was arrested for violating the Mann Act — transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes — and sentenced to serve one year in prison. His crime? Traveling with his white wife over state lines. Johnson was finally granted a presidential pardon in 2018.
13. Wilma Rudolph
Born: June 23, 1940 (Saint Bethlehem, Tennessee)
Died: Nov. 12, 1994 (age 54, Brentwood, Tennessee)
High school: Burt High School (Clarksville, Tennessee)
College: Tennessee State
Sport: Track and field
Career: 5 years (1958-63)
Career highlights: Three-time Olympic gold medalist (1960), Olympic bronze medalist (1956)
Bottom line: Wilma Rudolph was just 16 years old when she won a bronze medal in the 400-meter relay at the 1956 Olympics. That performance served as a precursor for the international stardom she achieved four years later.
At the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Rudolph brought home three gold medals — winning in the 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash and 400 relay. With the games televised worldwide for the first time, Rudolph's showing made her a household name. And she became one of the most famous Black women not just in the United States, but all over the world.
Rudolph died of brain cancer in 1994, at 54 years old.
12. Tiger Woods
Born: Dec. 30, 1975 (Cypress, California)
High school: Western High School (Anaheim, California)
Career: 26 years (1996-present)
Career highlights: Five-time Masters tournament champion (1997, 2001, 2002, 2005, 2019), four-time PGA Championship winner (1999, 2000, 2006, 2007), three-time U.S. Open champion (2000, 2002, 2008), three-time time British Open champion (2000, 2005, 2006)
Bottom line: Tiger Woods is arguably the greatest golfer to ever play the game and one of the most well-known athletes in any sport. Golf fans first saw Tiger on national television when he was just 2 years old and made an appearance on "The Michael Douglas Show" and had a putting competition against comedian Bob Hope.
Woods' 15 major titles are the second most of all time, and his record-setting win at the 1997 Masters tournament — becoming the younger Masters champion at the age of 21 — is one of the greatest moments in sports history. His final round on Sunday was viewed by a record 44 million viewers.
Woods, who has an estimated net worth of $800 million, was severely injured in a car crash in February 2021 and hasn't played professionally since.
11. Arthur Ashe
Born: July 10, 1943 (Richmond, Virginia)
Died: Feb. 6, 1993 (age 49, New York, New York)
High school: Maggie L. Walker High School (Richmond, Virginia)
Career: 11 years (1969-80)
Career highlights: U.S. Open champion (1968), Australian Open champion (1970), WImbledon champion (1975)
Bottom line: Arthur Ashe's place in history goes far beyond tennis. If you want evidence, just read his stunning memoir "Days of Grace," which he finished just weeks before his death.
What made Ashe special on the court was his play. He's still the only Black man to win Grand Slam singles titles at the U.S. Open, Australian Open and Wimbledon. And he's one of just two Black men to win a Grand Slam singles title, along with Yannick Noah, who won the French Open in 1983.
Ashe died in 1993 from HIV-related complications after he contracted the disease through a blood transfusion during heart surgery. He was just 49 years old.
10. Bill Russell
Born: Feb. 12, 1934 (Monroe, Louisiana)
High school: McClymonds High School (Oakland, California)
College: San Francisco
Career: 13 years (1956-69)
Career highlights: Eleven-time NBA champion (1957, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1968, 1969), five-time NBA MVP (1958, 1961-63, 1965), 12-time NBA All-Star (1958-69), 11-time All-NBA Team (1958-68)
Bottom line: Bill Russell was the centerpiece of the greatest dynasty in NBA history for the Boston Celtics, winning 11 NBA championships in his 13 NBA career. The five-time NBA Most Valuable Player needed to define toughness to succeed in his era, with his direct counterpart none other than Wilt Chamberlain, the only other player besides Russell to grab 50 rebounds in a single game.
Russell averaged a staggering 22.5 rebounds per game for his career, and his dominance in the NBA Finals was so complete that the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player award was eventually named after him.
Russell was also a frontline warrior in the American civil rights movement of the 1960s, was the first Black head coach in North American professional sports history with the Celtics from 1966 to 1969, and the first to win an NBA championship.
9. Simone Biles
Born: March 14, 1997 (Columbus, Ohio)
High school: None (homeschool)
Career: 7 years (2015-present)
Career highlights: Four-time Olympic gold medalist (2016), Olympic silver medalist (2020), two-time Olympic bronze medalist (2016, 2020), 19-time World Champion (2013-15, 2018, 2019), TIME Magazine Athlete of the Year (2021)
Bottom line: American gymnast Simone Biles became an international superstar at the 2016 Olympics when she won four gold medals, including in all-around and floor exercise, along with leading the U.S. to the team gold medal.
Biles' performance at the Olympics and in the preceding World Championships has been so dominant that she's already considered one of the greatest gymnasts of all time.
Biles had a chance to become the greatest Olympic gymnastics champion of all time at the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo but cemented her legacy in another fashion when she decided to withdraw from the competition, citing her mental health as the reason. Biles' decision became a beacon of hope for people all over the world struggling with the same mental health issues.
8. Joe Louis
Born: May 13, 1914 (LaFayette, Alabama)
Died: April 12, 1981 (age 66, Paradise, Nevada)
High school: Bronson Vocational School (Detroit, Michigan)
Career: 17 years (1932-49)
Career highlights: World heavyweight champion (1937-49), Golden Gloves champion (1934), U.S. national champion (1934)
Bottom line: No world champion boxer in any weight class has ever defended their title more times than Joe Louis, who defended the heavyweight title 25 times from 1932 to 1949. That is still the longest reign for any champion in any weight class in boxing history.
But Louis' true legacy was tied to the time in which he fought. He's looked at as the first Black athlete to be embraced by all of America for his accomplishments. Specifically, he became a national hero by defeating German boxer and Nazi Max Schmeling in 1938 leading up to World War II.
Boxing wasn't the only sport Louis helped bring Blacks into. He broke the color barrier in golf by playing in a PGA Tour event in 1952 with a sponsor's exemption.
7. Althea Gibson
Born: Aug. 25, 1927 (Clarendon County, South Carolina)
Died: Sept. 28, 2003 (age 76, East Orange, New Jersey)
High school: Williston High School (Wilmington, North Carolina)
College: Florida A&M
Sports: Tennis, Golf
Career: 12 years (1946-58)
Career highlights: Two-time Wimbledon champion (1957, 1958), two-time U.S. Open champion (1957, 1958), French Open champion (1956), two-time Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year (1957, 1958)
Bottom line: Most people know Althea Gibson as a groundbreaking tennis star. She was the first Black woman to win a Grand Slam championship when she won the French Open in 1956.
Gibson went on to win five Grand Slam singles and six Grand Slam doubles titles in her career, but she also was the first Black woman to play on the LPGA Tour.
And Gibson's resolve in the face of racism at almost every turn early in her career — she was routinely turned away at white-only clubs — laid the groundwork for the great generations of Black and minority tennis players to come after her.
6. Colin Kaepernick
Born: Nov. 3, 1987 (Milwaukee, Wisconsin)
High school: Pitman High School (Turlock, California)
Career: 5 years (2011-16)
Career highlights: Two-time WAC Offensive Player of the Year (2008, 2010), NFC champion (2012)
Bottom line: Colin Kaepernick was one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks in the early 2010s, leading the San Francisco 49ers to a Super Bowl in the 2012 season and setting NFL records for most rushing yards by a quarterback in a single game and in a single postseason.
Kaepernick's true legacy would be off the field. After he kneeled during the national anthem in protest of police violence against Black people, he was drummed out of the NFL for his political beliefs and ultimately blackballed from playing professional football. Kaepernick sued the league for collusion in regards to him not signing with a team and reached an out-of-court settlement with the NFL in 2019.
Kaepernick's decision to peacefully protest can be pointed to as one of the foundations of the current social justice movement in the United States.
5. Michael Jordan
Born: Feb. 17, 1963 (Brooklyn, New York)
High school: Laney High School (Wilmington, North Carolina)
College: North Carolina
Career: 16 years (1984-1993, 1995-1998, 2001-2003)
Career highlights: Six-time NBA champion (1991-93, 1996-98), six-time NBA Finals MVP (1991-93, 1996-98), five-time NBA MVP (1988, 1991, 1992, 1996, 1998), 14-time NBA All-Star (1985-93, 1996-98, 2002, 2003), three-time NBA All-Star Game MVP (1988, 1996, 1998), 11-time All-NBA (1985, 1987-93, 1996-98), NBA Defensive Player of the Year (1988), nine-time All-NBA Defensive Team (1988-93, 1996-98), NBA Rookie of the Year (1985)
Bottom line: The greatest basketball player of all time and arguably the most famous athlete of all time, Michael Jordan won five NBA Most Valuable Player awards with the Chicago Bulls, six NBA championships and six NBA Finals Most Valuable Player awards in his career.
Jordan's influence off the court was what truly shot his fame into the stratosphere, mostly thanks to his signature Air Jordan shoe line from Nike.
In 2020, Jordan's net worth of $2.1 billion made him the richest former professional athlete in the world, and he is currently the principal owner of the NBA's Charlotte Hornets. Jordan's story is told in one of the most beloved sports documentaries of all time — "The Last Dance," which was released in 2020.
4. Jesse Owens
Born: Sept. 12, 1913 (Oakville, Alabama)
Died: March 31, 1980 (age 66, Tucson, Arizona)
High school: East Technical High School (Cleveland, Ohio)
College: Ohio State
Sport: Track and field
Career: 2 years (1935-36)
Career highlights: Four-time Olympic gold medalist (1936), eight-time NCAA national champion (1935, 1936)
Bottom line: No athlete in any sport, ever, has seen their athletic accomplishments take on a greater meaning than Jesse Owens did when he won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
Owens' victories in the 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash, long jump and 400 relay incensed German dictator Adolf Hitler, who was trying to promote his "superior race" theory at the Olympics and showcase the domination of German athletes.
No Olympic track and field athlete won four gold medals at a single Olympic Games again until American sprinter Carl Lewis in 1984.
3. Curt Flood
Born: Jan. 18, 1938 (Houston, Texas)
Died: Jan. 29, 1997 (age 59, Los Angeles, California)
High school: McClymonds High School (Oakland, California)
Career: 14 years (1956-69, 1971)
Career highlights: Two-time World Series champion (1964, 1967), three-time MLB All-Star (1964, 1966, 1968), seven-time Gold Glove Award winner (1963-69)
Bottom line: Curt Flood's baseball career would have been remarkable on its own. Two-time World Series champion, three-time All-Star and seven-time Gold Glove Award-winning center fielder who batted almost .300 over his 14-year career.
But Flood's actions following the 1969 season, when he refused a trade to the Phillies and pointed out the inherent unfairness of MLB's "reserve clause" — which essentially made players the property of one team for life — made him a legend.
Flood lost his lawsuit against MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn challenging his trade and his right to become a free agent, but his taking a stand sparked the movement that led to free agency in baseball in 1975.
His crowning achievement came in 1998 when congress signed "The Curt Flood Act" — stripping MLB owners of the antitrust status they'd had for 75 years. Without Flood, who knows how long it would have taken not just for MLB but all other professional sports to recognize free agency?
2. Muhammad Ali
Born: Jan. 17, 1942 (Louisville, Kentucky)
Died: June 3, 2016 (age 74, Scottsdale, Arizona)
High school: Central High School (Louisville, Kentucky)
Career: 21 years (1960-81)
Career highlights: Six-time Ring Magazine Fighter of the year, Olympic gold medalist (1960), heavyweight champion of the world
Bottom line: Muhammad Ali's fame extended way beyond the ring, where the greatest boxer who ever lived electrified the world as the heavyweight champion of the world.
He won his first title as a 22-year-old in 1964 with a shocking upset of Sonny Liston. Then he captured the title again two more times after that, including after a four-year absence when he'd had his title stripped for refusing to volunteer to fight in the Vietnam War.
Ali captivated fans all over the world with his fighting skill and personality after his boxing career ended. Ali, who battled Parkinson's disease for the last 20-30 years of his life, died in 2016 at 74 years old.
1. Jackie Robinson
Born: Jan. 31, 1919 (Cairo, Georgia)
Died: Oct. 24, 1972 (age 53, Stamford, Connecticut)
High school: John Muir High School (Pasadena, California)
College: Pasadena Junior College/UCLA
Career: 19 years (1945-56)
Career highlights: World Series champion (1955), National League MVP (1949), six-time MLB All-Star (1949-54), MLB Rookie of the Year (1947), MLB All-Century Team, Negro League All-Star (1945), NCAA long jump champion (1940)
Bottom line: Jackie Robinson broke the MLB's color barrier in 1947, becoming the first Black player in league history and paving the way for generations of athletes in all professional sports.
Robinson's legacy was about so much more than what he did on the field, where he was one of the greatest players of all time. Robinson's aplomb in handling the racist vitriol that came his way when he broke the color barrier was something to behold and revealed an inner strength we can still learn from to this day.
Robinson's jersey — No. 42 — has been retired by every single MLB team.