Commentary, Sports

Influential Black Athletes throughout sports history

Millions of people watch sports, more than ever. From tennis to basketball, it has expanded tremendously.

According to a recent study by Siena College Research Institute, 21% of Americans are “avid” fans who watch sports, sports news, talk about sports, check scores and in many cases play fantasy sports almost every single day, while another 26% of “involved” fans engage with sports at least several times weekly.

A lot of historic moments have occurred in various sports over the years and Black athletes make up a huge part of that. Today’s sporting world has major hurdles but has been able to jump over some obstacles.

If you turn on the TV now, diversity is clear as day whether you are tuning into sports like football or track and field. However, times were not always like this.

During the 20th century, African Americans were not allowed to even be on the same team if they were not White.

The Jim Crow laws that were in place in the 1880s hindered young black athletes from fully participating in sports due to segregation.

Sixty-three years before Jackie Robinson became the first African American in the modern era to play in a Major League Baseball game, Moses Fleetwood Walker debuted in the league on May 1, 1884, with the Toledo Blue Stockings in a 5-1 loss against the Louisville Eclipse. Even though Walker’s team lost in his first game, breaking the color barrier was a win for generations to come.

The 1936 Summer Olympics, formally known as the Games of the XI Olympiad, was held from August 1-16 in Berlin, Germany. During a time of global pressure and racial exclusion, track and field legend Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games. Despite the Olympics being overruled by Adolf Hitler, Owens won the 100m in 10.30 seconds, the 200m in 20.70 seconds, and then the long jump, with an impressive leap of 8.06 meters.

American boxer Jack Johnson was the first African American to become a heavyweight champion. Fighting professionally from 1897 to 1928, one of his biggest victories was knocking out former champion James J. Jeffries, who had been induced to come out of retirement as a “Great White Hope.” Johnson had 114 matches, winning 80, 45 of them via knockouts.

Wilma Rudolph was a trailblazer for women in the 1950s. While in high school, Rudolph participated in track and field meets at the collegiate level. During that time in 1956, she went to the Olympic games and won a bronze medal in the 4×100 relay. The 1960 Olympics was the year Rudolph would cement her history in sports. She won three gold medals and broke at least three world records. Rudolph became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field at the same Olympic game. Her performance also earned her the title of “the fastest woman in the world.”

Bill Russell, arguably one of the greatest NBA players in history, was known for his defense, rebounds and shot-blocking during his time with the Boston Celtics. Russell made an impact on the team and led the Celtics to win 11 championships in 13 seasons. In 1966, Russell became the first Black coach in the NBA and the first to win a championship. He would also go down in history for winning gold for the U.S. national men’s basketball team at the 1956 Olympics.

One of the most well-known athletes in the world, Serena Williams, has changed the game of tennis since her beginning in the 1990s with her sister Venus Williams. With 23 titles, Williams has won the most Grand Slam tournaments in the Open Era, the most since 1968. She also holds the record as the only player, man or woman, to accomplish a Career Golden Slam in both singles and doubles. At some point in her career, Williams was one of the highest-paid women in tennis and in sports, earning $29 million in 2017.

Tiger Woods is regarded as one of the greatest golfers in history and has impacted the sport for decades. He has won five Masters Tournaments, four PGA Championships, three U.S. Open Championships, and three British Open Championships. With his second Masters victory in 2001, Tiger became the first golfer ever to hold all four professional major championships at the same time.

These are just a few Black pioneers of many who shaped the way we watch, play and admire sports today.

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