“We all have to do better,” Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James said, concluding an emotional opening speech to the 2016 ESPY Awards last week. The NBA Finals MVP was joined onstage by fellow perennial all-stars Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul, Chicago Bulls guard Dwyane Wade and New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony. Dressed in black and wearing solemn expressions, they issued an urgent call to action for all major athletes. They encouraged them to, like sportsmen in years past, stand in solidarity and use their massive platforms and influence to enact social change.
Not too many people in attendance cared who was among the awardees. This year’s award show was primarily dedicated to honoring the life of Muhammad Ali. The charismatic three-time World Heavyweight Champion was known as much for his courage as his unparalleled boxing prowess. As a black man, he carried himself with a level of pride and class that threatened his white peers as well as the media; he took extreme measures to stay true to his beliefs at any cost. Although he was undeniably The Greatest, Ali was not the first or last socially outspoken athlete who has made an enormous impact. Let’s take a look at 10 other athletes, some well-known and others under the radar, who have always been bout it.
Serena Williams has had one of the greatest individual careers in the history of not only tennis, but in all of sports. She revolutionized the game with her formidable strength and athleticism, overwhelming opponents on her way to 22 major titles (tied for most all-time) and 70 Women’s Tennis Association titles. However, these impressive accolades only tell half the story. Williams’s impact off the court as an advocate and leader for black women has been nothing short of iconic. Serena has embodied both grace and power, remaining unapologetic about her black womanhood as she’s dominated a sport in which minorities are typically marginalized.
Raised in Compton, California, one of the nation’s most violent and underserved cities, her foundation’s stated mission is to help “communities affected by senseless violence” and “increase access to education.” Williams has done relief work for UNICEF, partnered with Hewlett Packard to build secondary schools in Kenya, and established a scholarship fund for talented students. She’s also openly supported the Black Lives Matter movement and traveled the world promoting womanism.
Armed with the most indefensible offensive weapon in basketball, NBA center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar boasts an impressive resume. His sky hook catapulted him to leading the NBA in all-time scoring, winning six NBA championships, and earning a league record six MVP Awards. After winning his first ring, the center, born Ferdinand Alcindor, converted to Islam and took on the name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Kareem is frequently ranked as the best center of all-time, but his work off the court proves his impact has not diminished since he decided to lace ‘em up for good.
Kareem is a best-selling author who has contributed to modern discourse around religion, race and college athletics. He often criticizes terrorist acts of violence and refutes the idea that any of them are fundamental to Islam. Additionally, Kareem advocates for equal access to education as well as compensation for college athletes.
Although his tremendous speed was otherworldly, Jesse Owens was a stark reminder of how human these elite athletes truly are. Owens tied the world record for the 100 meter-dash and set a new mark for the 220m in high school before being recruited to Ohio State University. Owens’s national prominence would not come without stipulations. Because he was black, he wasn’t able to live on campus, stay in hotels with his teammates, or even receive a scholarship for his efforts. Racial barriers continued to plague the sprinter as he earned four gold medals in the 1936 Olympic Games and didn’t receive the customary congratulation from President Roosevelt. His historic performance was a pivotal win for the United States over Germany for world dominance, then led by Adolf Hitler, in which six of the eleven medals were clinched by African-Americans.
A reflection of the times, racial discrimination prevented gold medals from translating into what would today be multimillion dollar endorsements. Owens was still a college student and had to work long hours pumping gas to make ends meet. Finding himself in a financial bind, he developed the belief that increasing their economic power was the only means for black people to gain influence. He openly criticized Civil Rights leaders as well as the Olympic athletes who famously raised their fists in support of black power. Owens later retracted those statements and confirmed his belief in the importance of social and political movements in his later years.
NFL linebacker Deandre Levy’s steady improvement earned him a second-team All-Pro nod, but stats cannot define this born leader. This past April, Levy boldly took to the Player’s Tribune, the same forum used by Kobe Bryant to announce his retirement and Kevin Durant his departure from Oklahoma City, to speak about a topic that is always pertinent and never discussed enough. Levy wrote an open letter challenging and encouraging men, especially professional athletes, to take more initiative in combatting sexual assault. He described society’s general disrespect for women, as well as their sexual agency. Levy even condemned an implicit characterization of manliness — being the least feminine one possibly can. He drew a stark contrast between what does (the answer yes) and doesn’t (the absence of a no) qualify as consent. Perhaps the most refreshing of his observations is that men should not combat sexual assault because of the women close to them, but because all women matter. Levy redefined the commonly used term “man up” as a challenge for men to speak up about assault, promote a safe culture and respect women’s humanity.
Billie Jean King
Billie Jean King was once ranked the top female tennis player in the world, famously defeating former top male player Bobby Riggs in what was dubbed “the Battle of the Sexes.” This win put an exclamation point on her dominant career and garnered more respect for female players. King often openly criticized the disparity in prize money and fame between men and women. She held that women’s tennis was deserving of his its own unique stage and fan base. As a result, she established the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973. A 1981 lawsuit filed by her female lover forced King to become the first major athlete to come out as lesbian. She lost nearly $2 million in endorsements, but the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom winner proudly used her platform to support the feminist and LGBT communities through advocacy.
Gabby Douglas, at the age of 16, made Olympic history as the first black woman to win gold in the individual all-around gymnastics competition in 2012. She also became the only American gymnast to win the all-around and capture an additional gold medal in a single Olympic games. These accomplishments showed Douglas's work ethic and incredible ability; what she did next was a testament of her true character. With the spotlight on her, Douglas shared a story all too familiar to black athletes in this nation. She spoke out about the racism and bullying she endured at the Excalibur Gym in Virginia Beach, Virginia, even being referred to as a “slave” on one occasion.
Her bravery was met with accusations of lying and mentions of alleged monetary debt to this particular gym. As a young black woman breaking barriers in a white-dominated sport, Gabby has inspired many through her sustained success, introspective autobiography, and speaking engagements.
Jim Brown is universally regarded as the best fullback to ever player in the NFL. In nine seasons, Brown led the league in rushing an unbelievable eight times, won an NFL championship and secured two MVP awards. Abruptly retiring at 30 to pursue an acting career, he quickly joined the front lines of Civil Rights activism. While he was still an active player, Brown was ahead of his time in his methods of promoting economic independence for black people. He founded the Black Economic Union, in which black professional athletes facilitated the pooling of resources to invest in black enterprise, urban athletic clubs and youth programs. His venture was unsuccessful but motivated other organizations to take on the cause. In 1988, Brown founded Amer-I-Can, an organization that provides life coaching and mentorship to former incarcerated individuals and gang members. The NFL Hall of Famer has voiced and demonstrated his undying support for black inner city communities.
In his fourth and final season with the Denver Broncos, wide receiver Brandon Marshall set an NFL record with 21 receptions. Outside of his stellar play, Marshall soon earned a reputation for legal troubles and frequent suspensions tied to his temper. At a 2011 press conference, preceding his second season with the Miami Dolphins, the six-time Pro Bowler announced that he suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder. Marshall pledged to spread awareness about a disorder that affects at least 30% of prison inmates nationally and ends in suicide in 6–10% of diagnosed patients. He also vowed to receive treatment, donate an amount equal to fines incurred from the NFL for his misbehavior to mental health charities and battle the stigma behind mental illness. In 2013, Marshall donated a pair of signed green cleats in support of Mental Health Illness Awareness Week.
James MacLaren was known for delivering record-shattering performances in the marathon and Ironman triathlon despite having his leg amputated below the knee. MacLaren displayed perseverance and commitment even after this amazing feat, translating his fame to a career in motivational speaking. The competitor founded the Challenged Athletes Foundation to help physically impaired people remain active and able to compete in athletics. A few of the foundation’s primary functions are providing funding for equipment and instilling disabled athletes with high self-esteem through mentorship.
Earvin “Magic” Johnson, for his charisma and talent, is widely considered the best NBA point guard of all time. Magic, with his 6’9,” 220-lb frame, was the ultimate floor general for the “Showtime” Lakers, with the highest all-time career assist average (11.2) and five NBA championships. A fan favorite throughout his career, Magic’s life was forever changed when he announced to the world that he’d contracted HIV. Because little was known about the virus, and it was wrongfully associated with homosexuality or drug abuse, Johnson was forced into retirement in 1991. The point guard did not know how the virus would affect his health, and players had signed a petition refusing to compete against him for fear of contracting it.
Johnson rebounded in a way only he could. He invested in multiple business ventures and dedicated his time to rebuilding inner city neighborhoods, pledging millions of his own dollars to these efforts. He established the Magic Johnson Foundation to provide information pertaining to HIV/AIDS in order to end discrimination against those who have contracted the virus. Magic served on the National Committee for AIDS and remains vocally supportive of sexual health and education.