Athlete activists generally don’t get the respect and credit that they deserve. In fact, they’re often ridiculed, taken advantage of, not taken seriously, or completely ignored. A good example of this is when Laura Ingraham infamously told LeBron James to ‘shut up and dribble’ back in 2018.
The truth is athletes are more than just the sport they play. Sure, athletes are people, just like the rest of us, but they hold an immense amount of influence in the society we live in today and they have a lot of fans that look up to them. When they talk, people listen and they listen carefully.
An athlete’s voice matters and while all athletes project that voice in different ways, they will always be remembered for their efforts both on and off the court or field. If it weren’t for the dedication and courage from athlete activists, many of our social issues today would be ignored.
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Who Are the Most Memorable Athlete Activists?
In 2020, we started to witness a new rush of athlete activists stand up for what they believe in and it’s ushering in a new wave of influence, inspiration, and motivation. Of course, athlete activists are nothing new in sports and there are plenty of historic legends that fit the description.
Over the past century, we’ve seen plenty of athlete activists step up to the plate in hopes of spreading awareness and advancing conversations around a particular social issue — including civil rights, freedom of speech, war and violence, poverty, equality, sexual orientation, and more.
Of all the athlete activists to stand up for what they believe in, there are several that stand out above the rest. They’re the ones that we turned to when things needed to be said or actions needed to be taken. Let’s take a look at our top 25 athlete activists to ever voice their opinion.
25. Martina Navratilova
Martina Navratilova will go down as one of the greatest female tennis players of all-time. She won 59 Grand Slam titles between singles, doubles, and mixed doubles. She’s the only player to be No. 1 in both singles (332 weeks) and doubles (237 weeks) for more than 200 weeks.
She was just as electric off the court as on the court. She has long been an advocate for gay rights, the LGBTQ+ community, underpriveleged children, and animal rights. She still uses her voice today, including campaigning against transgenders competing in women’s sports.
24. Rudy Galindo
Rudy Galindo is one of the most impressive figure skaters of all-time. He was named US National Champion once as a single and twice as a pair, World Junior Champion once as a single and once as a pair, and was a World Bronze medalist as a single from 1987-1996.
Galindo was also the first openly gay figure skating champion the sport has ever seen. He wasn’t shy about it, coming out to the world in a 1996 book by Christine Brennan. Four years later, he announced he was HIV positive. He has also stood by the LGBTQ+ community.
23. Magic Johnson
Magic Johnson is regarded as one of the most talented and versatile point guards to ever step foot on a basketball court. He’s a five-time NBA Champion, three-time MVP, 12-time All Star, and made it to the Finals nine times in his career. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2002.
Johnson’s NBA career came to an abrupt ending in the early 1990s when he announced he was HIV positive in 1991. He quickly created the Magic Johnson Foundation, which aims to help combat and educate about HIV and AIDS, while advocating for safe sex — among other things.
22. Dan Rooney
Dan Rooney is known for his efforts as General Manager, President, and Owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1969-2016. During his time with the team, the Steelers won 15 Division Championships, eight AFC Championships, and six Super Bowls — which is an NFL record.
Of all the ways he helped revolutionize the game of football, the Rooney Rule is perhaps his most prominent. It’s a rule that requires an NFL team to interview at least one (now two) minority candidates for all head coach and general manager vacancies to promote equal opportunity.
21. Bill Russell
Bill Russell will forever be remembered as one of the NBA’s greatest players of all-time. He dominated the league with the Boston Celtics from 1956-1969, winning 11 NBA Championships, being named an All-Star 12 times, and winning five MVP awards in his illustrious 13-year career.
Not only was Russell the first African American superstar in the NBA, but he was also the first to be named a head coach in any sport and first to win a championship. His efforts on the court and in the Civil Rights Movement earned him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.
20. Roberto Clemente
Roberto Clemente enjoyed an incredible 18-year career in the MLB, playing in 2,433 games while batting .317 over his career, hitting 240 home runs, and recording 1,305 runs batted in. He was a 15-time All-Star, one-time MVP, two-time Champion, and 12-time Gold Glove winner.
He will go down as one of the biggest humanitarians the sport has ever seen, helping pave the way for Latino baseball players today. He tragically passed away in a plane crash in 1972, delivering aid and supplies to Nicaragua — which needed relief from massive earthquakes.
19. Althea Gibson
Althea Gibson helped pave the way for African American female athletes. In 1950, she became the first African American to compete in the US Open, then known as the US Championships. Six years later, she became the first African American female to win a Grand Slam title.
Gibson would go on to win five singles Grand Slams, five doubles Grand Slam, and one mixed doubles Grand Slam in her career. She helped break the color barrier in tennis and even became the first African American to compete on the Women’s Professional Golf Tour.
18. Michael Sam
Michael Sam never played a regular season NFL game, he will forever be remembered as the first publicly gay player to be drafted in the NFL. In fact, his jersey was the second best-selling rookie jersey in the NFL at the time. He helped pave the way for gay players in the NFL today.
Sam had a successful rookie season, despite many considering him too small to play defensive end. He played in all four preseason games for the Rams, tallying 11 tackles and three sacks during the preseason. Unfortunately, he never made the 53-man roster and teams lost interest.
17. Jackie Robinson
Jackie Robinson is one of the most well-known baseball players of all-time. Becoming the first African American to play in the MLB, he helped break baseball’s color barrier in the late 1940s. The MLB decided to retire his No. 42 across all teams, which had never been done before.
The MLB also named April 15th as Jackie Robinson Day, a day in which all MLB players honor Jackie Robinson by wearing his No. 42. His efforts helped pioneer the Civil Rights Movement and helped give African Americans a voice in a time when they didn’t have one consistently.
16. Ann Meyers Drysdale
Ann Meyers Drysdale was one of the first females to break the gender barrier in basketball. She not only became the first female to sign a four-year collegiate athletic scholarship at UCLA, but went on to have an illustrious and dominant basketball career at UCLA from 1974-1978.
In four years at UCLA, she averaged 17.4 points, 8.4 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 4.2 steals, and 1.0 block per game. She drew praise from Bill Russell, became the first female to sign an NBA contract — before the WNBA existed — and was the first female to broadcast an NBA game.
15. Jim Brown
Jim Brown is regarded as one of the best running backs of all-time and one of the best football players ever. Though he only played nine seasons in the NFL, he made the Pro Bowl every year, won three MVP awards, was a one-time NFL Champion, and is in the Hall of Fame.
Off the field, he was the founder of the Black Economic Union, which helped make African Americans competitive in the business world. He would also break barriers as an actor after his playing days, earning prestigious roles over white actors — such as his role in ‘100 Rifles.’
14. Naomi Osaka
Naomi Osaka is the first Asian player to be ranked No. 1 in singles tennis, as well as the first Japanese tennis player to achieve No. 1 status. She has won a Grand Slam title in four consecutive years and is widely regarded as one of the best female tennis players today.
She was recently named one of Sports Illustrated’s five Sportspersons of the Year for her continued activism — showing support for the Black Lives Matter movement, denouncing anti-Asian hate crimes, and spreading awareness for mental health during her young career.
13. ‘The Syracuse 8’
‘The Syracuse 8’ were a group of nine college football players at Syracuse University. In 1969, they decided to boycott a practice in hopes of ending the discrimination of African Americans and bring much-needed reform to the campus’ football program. The boycott lasted all season.
The group had four demands — equal access to tutors and academic advisors, better medical treatment, playing time based on merit (not skin color), and diversification of what has been an all-white staff for over 70 years. They helped athletes of color gain both respect and equality.
12. Arthur Ashe
Arthur Ashe is one of the most revered tennis players of all-time, so much so that the main stadium for the US Open is called Arthur Ashe Stadium. Through his career, he won three Grand Slam singles titles (seven appearances) and two Grand Slam doubles titles.
Beyond that, Ashe will forever be remembered for his activism. He was once arrested for protesting against how Haitian refugees were treated and helped expose social injustices in South Africa. He also helped educate others about HIV and AIDS after contracting HIV in 1983.
11. Brittney Griner
Brittney Griner made a name for herself as one of the greatest female college basketball players in history, becoming the first college player to score 2,000 points and record 500 blocked shots. She has continued that stellar play at the pro level, winning a championship in 2014.
As an LGBTQ athlete, Griner has long advocated for equal opportunity at all levels. She is also known for taking a stand against the National Anthem, vowing to not to stand or be on the court when the song is played before a game. She finds comfort in standing up for what’s right.
10. Carlos Delgado
Carlos Delgado enjoyed a 17-year career in the MLB and played for the Toronto Blue Jays, New York Mets, and Florida Marlins. He hit 473 career home runs, 1,512 career RBIs, 1,241 runs scored, and had a career batting average of .280. He was also a three-time Silver Slugger.
Outside of his stellar play, Delgado was heavily against war and violence. In fact, he decided to continue sitting in the dugout while the National Anthem played before the game, while everyone else was standing — something that players in all sports continue to do to this day in protest.
9. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was drafted third overall by the Denver Nuggets in 1990 and went on to enjoy a nine-year career in the NBA. He averaged 14.6 points, 1.9 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 0.8 steals per game throughout his career, including a career-high 19.2 points in 1992 and 1995.
He is one of the first basketball players to refuse to stand during the National Anthem. He believed the United States flag was a symbol of oppression and wanted to spark change in the country he grew up in. This decision created a lot of controversy and even led to a suspension.
8. Pat Tillman
Pat Tillman was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in the seventh round of the 1998 NFL Draft. He would end up playing four years in the NFL, recording three interceptions, three fumble recoveries, 2.5 sacks, 15 passes defensed, 374 combined tackles, and 5 tackles for a loss.
Tillman was a player that loved his country and wanted to fight for citizen freedom and rights. His NFL career came to an end in 2002 when he enlisted in the US Army following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Two years later, Tillman was killed in combat during a tour in Afghanistan.
7. ‘The Fierce Five’
The Fierce Five, formerly known as the Fab Five, represented Team USA in gymnastics at the 2012 Summer Olympics and won the gold medal in the team competition. The team consisted of Gabby Douglas, McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, Kyla Ross, and Jordyn Wieber.
The five women were most known for exposing team doctor Larry Nassar — among other staff, coaches, and gym owners — for engaging in sexual abuse. The sexual abuse spanned several decades, but the Fierce Five were instrumental in exposing and finally bringing that to an end.
6. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar will go down as one of the greatest basketball players to ever play. He spent 20 years in the league and was a 19-time All-Star, two-time scoring champ, six-time NBA Champion, four-time blocking champion, one-time rebounding champion, and Hall of Famer.
Abdul-Jabbar was also known for his activism. He’s the author of several books that talk about African American history, he doesn’t shy away from voicing his opinion on race, faith, equality, and religion, and helped spread awareness about the Muslim and Islamic culture and belief.
5. Colin Kaepernick
Colin Kaepernick was a second round draft choice by the San Francisco 49ers in 2011. He started to impress coaches in 2012 and became the regular starting quarterback in 2013. Over his six-year career, he had a 28-30 record and threw for 72 touchdowns and 30 interceptions.
His career took a surprising turn for the worse in 2016 when he decided to kneel during the singing of the National Anthem. He sparked a lot of controversy both inside and outside the league as he protested against police brutality and racial inequality in the United States.
4. John Carlos and Tommie Smith
John Carlos and Tommie Smith were representing Team USA in the 200-meter dash during the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Carlos would go on to win bronze and Smith won gold as they showcased their intense speed in front of the entire world — but that’s not all they did.
During the medal ceremony, Carlos and Smith proceeded to raise their fist during the National Anthem in what became known as the Black Power Salute. It was one of the most symbolic moments in sports history and helped spur the human rights movement at the time.
3. Billie Jean King
Billie Jean King will go down as one of the most influential tennis players and female athletes of all-time. As a player, she won 39 Grand Slam titles — including 12 singles, 16 doubles, and 11 mixed doubles. In 1972, she won the French Open, Wimbledon, and US Open in the same year.
During her career, she was a heavy advocate for gender equality and is a big reason why men and women receive the same winning purse in tennis. She was also the player that organized the Women’s Tennis Association, which is the governing body of women’s tennis to this day.
2. LeBron James
LeBron James has the most influential and powerful voice in all of sports. When he speaks, the entire world is listening and it’s not just because he’s one of the greatest basketball players of all-time. He’s an advocate for racial equality and frequently protests against police brutality.
James continues to use his voice for good to this day and it’s something that will follow him the rest of his life — both on and off the court. At the same time, he continues to dominate the basketball world as he enters his 19th season in the NBA — fourth with the Los Angeles Lakers.
1. Muhammad Ali
Perhaps no other athlete has ever had a voice that’s more powerful and influential as Muhammad Ali. He was more than one of the greatest boxers of all-time and wasn’t afraid to speak his mind — even when it sparked a lot of controversy or went against common belief.
Ali converted to Muslim faith in 1961 and was a heavy advocate for the religion, even changing his name in the process — he was born Cassius Clay. Five years later, he refused to be drafted into the Army due to his religious beliefs, even sacrificing much of his boxing career as a result.
Athlete Activists Prove It’s More Than Just a Sport
Over the past 100 years, athlete activists have worked tirelessly to prove that they are more than just athletes and it’s more than just a sport. They understand that their voice holds more weight than the average person and they can use that voice to spread positivity and reform.
Although some athlete activists stand out more than others, we fully appreciate the work that every athlete activist dedicates to the growth, development, and maturing of the world we live in. When others say, ‘shut up and dribble,’ we like to say, ‘speak up and stand up for what’s right.’
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With the amount of injustice in the world, especially in the United States, athletes must feel comfortable using their stage to promote change where it’s needed the most. When they speak up, we all listen. When they step forward, we step with them. Together, we unify and prosper.
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