Most Influential Social Activists in Sports History
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision in 2016 to not stand for the national anthem as a protest against the oppression of people of color lit a political fuse that continues to burn through the sports world and society.
His bold stand by sitting (and then kneeling) earned him widespread praise and scorn. In 2017, he was honored by Sports Illustrated with the Muhammad Ali Legacy Award. In 2018, he was given the prestigious W.E.B Du Bois Medal from Harvard University for his his work combatting racial injustice and inequality.
"I feel like it's not only my responsibility, but all our responsibilities as people that are in positions of privilege, in positions of power, to continue to fight for them and uplift them, empower them," Kaepernick said in a speech at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard. "Because if we don't, we become complicit in the problem."
Time will tell whether Kaepernick’s legacy mirrors that of Ali, the most influential social activist in the history of sports. But there’s little doubt that Kaepernick has joined a long list of athletes from various sports circles who have used their positions and prestige as a platform to change society — whether as pioneers, social activists or both.
These men and women are the most influential athletes who struck a blow for social change, equality and justice through sports.
Ann Meyers Drysdale
The trailblazer for women’s basketball
Long before Cheryl Miller and Lisa Leslie brought women’s basketball out of the shadows and paved the way for the creation of the WNBA, there was Meyers Drysdale, the woman who truly broke the sport’s gender barrier.
Drysdale was the first woman to sign a four-year athletic scholarship at UCLA and became the first — and still only — woman to sign an NBA contract, doing so with the Indiana Pacers in 1979.
Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell once referred to her as "one of the best players ever (man or woman)."
She also was a trailblazer in sports broadcasting, becoming the first woman to broadcast an NBA game, also for the Pacers.
Making a difference off the field
Arguably the greatest running back in NFL history, Jim Brown was a different kind of activist than Colin Kaepernick and focused his efforts off the field.
In the 1960s, Brown founded what later became known as the Black Economic Union to help African-Americans advance economically.
Long after his career ended, he continued to fight for social change, founding Amer-I-Can in 1988 to combat gang violence.
However, Brown's legacy as an instrument for social change has been tarnished by a number of run-ins with the law over the years, including assault and rape allegations. He also has said that he wouldn’t have followed Kaepernick’s example in kneeling for "The Star-Spangled Banner."
A lifetime of social activism
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a Presidential Medal of Honor recipient, was among a number of prominent black athletes in the 1960s and '70s to embrace social activism and take a stand for civil rights.
Like Muhammad Ali before him, Abdul-Jabbar made the decision to convert to Islam and changed his name from Lew Alcindor. This was a powerful statement of independence that threatened both his popularity and career.
He also joined other prominent athletes at the time in supporting Ali’s refusal to be inducted into the Army during the Vietnam War, protested after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and skipped an opportunity to play in the 1968 Olympics because of the racial strife roiling the United States.
To this day, Abdul-Jabbar continues to speak out about social injustice.
Brittney Griner and Layshia Clarendon
Taking on the politics of transgender rights
Brittney Griner was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2013 WNBA draft out of Baylor University and supported the league's campaign to market to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community —the first league to design such a campaign.
In 2017, Griner, one of a handful of WNBA athletes who have publicly identified themselves as lesbian, took a bold stand with another WNBA player, Layshia Clarendon, co-writing an op-ed article against a bill in Texas that would have limited the rights of members of the LGBTQ community to use restrooms and other public facilities of their choice.
The two basketball stars saw the bill as a particular threat to LGBTQ athletes who could have been forced to use a locker room inconsistent with their gender identity.
“While we do not identify as transgender, we know what it feels like to be singled out for not fitting neatly into social norms,” they wrote.
The bill eventually died in the Texas legislature.
The Syracuse Eight
Fighting to level the playing field of college athletics
In recent years, college athletes have challenged universities and the NCAA over issues of social justice or fair treatment. Two examples are the University of Missouri football team’s threatened boycott in 2015 that forced out the college president and a class-action lawsuit by athletes over the value of scholarships that resulted in a $209 million settlement in 2017.
The pioneers in the area of college athlete activism were the "Syracuse Eight," a group of Syracuse University football players (as it turned out, there were actually nine) who walked out of a spring football practice in 1970 to protest racial discrimination on campus and within the football program.
They paid a high price for their stand. They were kicked off the team and their athletic careers ended. Despite sitting out the following the season, they were allowed to keep their scholarships and graduate.
Continuing the fight for equal pay
Time will tell whether Serena Williams’ stand on tennis’ “double standard” will change the sport, but no one can dispute the impact her sister has had in the area of equal pay for women’s players.
After failing to convince the All-England Club to pay the men’s and women’s Wimbledon champions the same amount in 2005, Venus Williams penned an op-ed in 2006 for The Times of London that caught the attention of Parliament.
When she won her fourth Wimbledon trophy in 2007, Venus also became the first woman to earn the same amount as the men’s champion: $1.4 million.
Her fight also was featured in a documentary titled Venus Vs.
The first openly gay pro football player
Michael Sam became the first openly gay player drafted by an NFL team in 2014 after the St. Louis Rams selected the defensive end from Missouri in the seventh round. Though he no longer plays, his impact endures.
After being cut by the Rams and Cowboys, he played in the Canadian Football League for a brief stint.
Sam's pro football career lasted only one season — he cited mental health issues for his retirement in 2015 — but his courage in publicly proclaiming his sexual orientation in perhaps the most virile of sports sent a powerful message.
Some have suggested that Sam’s unsuccessful career (he never played in an NFL regular-season game) may have deterred other gay football players from coming out in the years since. Still, like the Syracuse Eight, the long-term legacy of Sam's example may eclipse its immediate effects.
Bringing gay athletes out of the shadows
One of the greatest women’s tennis players ever, Martina Navratilova also has been a trailblazer in the area of gay rights and other social justice causes.
She disclosed her sexual orientation at the height of her career, jeopardizing endorsements and popularity, and proved that being gay didn’t have to cast a shadow over one’s athletic success.
Navratilova became an advocate for a wide range of causes, including AIDS research and equal rights, and she continues to make her voice heard, sometimes in unexpected ways, such as a recent New York Times op-ed piece in which she found fault with Serena Williams for the U.S. Open controversy.
Speaking up and standing out during civil rights era
Like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell put his stardom on the line to speak out during the height of the civil rights movement, and it likely cost him the full adoration that came to athletes who remained politically silent during the era.
Russell also was a pioneer, becoming the first African-American coach of a major pro team in the United States when he took over the Boston Celtics in 1966 while still playing.
Also like Abdul-Jabbar, Russell was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and has remained politically active in his later years. In early 2018, Russell tweeted a photo of himself kneeling with his presidential medal in response to President Donald Trump’s decision to cancel the visit of the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles over the issue of players kneeling during the national anthem.
U.S. figure skating’s first openly gay champion
Rudy Galindo stunned the figure skating world in 1996 with his upset victory at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose, Calif., in the process becoming the first openly gay and Latino skater to rise to the top of the sport.
In the years since, he has continued to be a vocal advocate for LGBTQ rights. Like Martina Navratilova, Galindo was among the first athletes to come out while still active in sports, thereby helping to remove the stigma for stars who worried that their sexual identity might jeopardize their career.
Not surprisingly, Galindo is credited for paving the way for new generations of male figure skaters to open up about their sexual orientation.
Babe Didrikson Zaharias
Breaking the gender barrier in professional sports
The New York Times described Babe Didrikson Zaharia as the all-but-forgotten sports superstar, and a strong argument can be made that Didrickson Zaharias was the greatest athlete in American history, male or female.
Her accomplishments in a range of sports, from golf to basketball to track and field, showed that sports was not just the dominion of men, and that women could reach for the same athletic heights.
In golf, she was the first woman to compete head-to-head against men, and was one of the founding members of the LPGA.
In addition to opening the doors of sports to women, she also raised public awareness around cancer, which cost Didrickson Zaharias her life at age 45, by speaking openly about her battle against the disease at a time when it was largely a silent killer.
Turning stardom into social activism
Colin Kaepernick became the sports world’s lightning rod for social issues involving black lives with his national anthem protests in 2016, but LeBron James has been a consistent force in this area for years, even if his actions have not typically been as provocative as Kaepernick’s.
James' activism began in a big way in 2012, when he and his Miami Heat teammates donned hoodies in tribute to Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, who was wearing one when he was shot and killed the previous month.
In 2014, James and other NBA stars wore T-shirts with the words “I Can’t Breathe” to protest the death of Eric Garner, a New York man who had been put in a chokehold by a police officer.
In 2015, James called for greater regulation of firearms after a Cleveland infant was killed by gunfire.
Today, James continues to stay in the advocacy spotlight by routinely trading jabs with President Donald Trump on political and social justice matters.
Taking a knee and a stand against police brutality
Colin Kaepernick may be the most polarizing athlete of his generation.
His decision to take a seat — and then a knee — during the national anthem of NFL games during the 2016 season created a political firestorm, and some believe cost him his career (that question appears destined to be answered in court).
Whether you agree with Kaepernick or not, no one can deny that his provocative act, which scores of players emulated, placed the sports world front and center in the heated Black Lives Matter debate.
Generations from now, Kaepernick's example will be remembered and analyzed for its social impact in the same way that Muhammad Ali’s stand against the Vietnam War and Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ black power salute at the 1968 Olympics are today.
The female Jackie Robinson in two sports
Perhaps no athlete, man or woman, broke more racial barriers during an athletic career than Althea Gibson.
She was the first African-American tennis player to compete at the U.S. National Championships in 1950 and the first African-American to play at Wimbledon the following year.
Before Arthur Ashe and the Williams sisters, Gibson proved that African-Americans could play at the highest levels of the sport, winning 56 singles and doubles championships before turning pro in 1959.
She later took up golf, another sport that had been closed to minorities, and was the first African-American member of the LPGA.
The soft-spoken social activist
Arthur Ashe was considered the Jackie Robinson of tennis and a far cry from the firebrand political activists of the 1960s, preferring civility and reason to vocal protests.
Some people at the time labeled Ashe an Uncle Tom for his restraint, but he steadily built a legacy as one of the greatest activists in the history of sports.
Ashe became a leader in the fight against apartheid in South Africa and, after contracting HIV through a blood-transfusion that ultimately cost him his life, dedicated himself to the fight against AIDS.
It’s little surprise that Barack Obama listed Ashe along with Muhammad Ali as the sports figures he most admired.
Shattering the myth of white supremacy
Jesse Owens triumphed over the stain of racism on both the national and world stages, and his example inspired generations of African-American athletes who saw that race didn’t have to stand in the way of sports success.
Even after shattering Adolf Hitler’s myth of white supremacy with his four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics, Owens continued to suffer mistreatment at home and endured economic hardships in a country that was still largely defined by racial inequality.
Though he wasn’t active in the civil rights movement like others, his stature as the nation’s first great black athlete helped open countless doors.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos
An act of defiance that has stood the test of time
In terms of a singularly bold and polarizing act that called attention to the issue of race relations, the black power salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the national anthem at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City echoes Colin Kaepernick’s NFL protest.
Like Kaepernick today, the track and field medalists were widely vilified for thrusting politics into the world of sports when they thrust their black-gloved fists skyward with heads bowed.
But 50 years later, their act of defiance continues to stand as a crystalizing moment of the civil rights era.
It will be interesting to see if the Kaepernick-inspired protests stand the test of time in a similar way.
Breaking the biggest of color barriers
Robinson is the greatest African-American pioneer in sports history for his role in breaking the color barrier in the biggest sport of his era, baseball (otherwise known as the national pastime).
Like the African-American pioneers who were responsible for desegregating the schools of the South during the civil rights era, Robinson endured no shortage of scorn and mistreatment, despite his exploits on the field that made him one of the greatest players in the history of the game.
But his impact in the fight for equal rights wasn’t limited to his actions on the field. He continued to speak out eloquently on issues of racial justice long after his playing days ended.
Billie Jean King
Leading the battle for equality among the sexes
Billie Jean King clearly stands alone as the greatest women’s athlete in the fight for social justice and equal rights, both through her actions and words.
Her 1973 victory over self-proclaimed male chauvinist Bobby Riggs in the so-called "Battle of the Sexes" was a defining moment in the feminist movement of the era. She also led the battle for equal treatment of women’s tennis players in the area of prize money, both as president of the Women’s Tennis Association and the driving force behind the first women’s professional tour.
After her career ended, King continued her activism, this time in the area of gay rights, after she became one of the first prominent American athletes in the 1980s to admit to having a same-sex relationship.
The undisputed champion of social justice in sports
If Jackie Robinson was the greatest African-American pioneer in sports history, Muhammad Ali was the greatest advocate for social justice.
The first great sports star to speak unabashedly about social issues and challenge the status quo, Ali nearly sacrificed his storied boxing career for his beliefs, when he was stripped of the heavyweight title for refusing to be drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War.
Sidelined for more than three years during his prime, Ali stayed busy by speaking out on issues of civil rights, even as he faced additional scorn and skepticism for his conversion to Islam, and his silver tongue was as devastating on the political stage as his footwork and punches were in the ring.
Perhaps his most impressive feat, in or out of the ring, was his remarkable transformation from reviled radical to beloved champion for justice and equality.