The cultural and financial proliferation of the 21st century African-American athlete has a foundational history that was constructed with the blood, sweat, and literal tears of their 20th century fore bearers. There is a rich emulsion of perseverance, paramount endeavor, and historical sacrifice that should never fade into the canvas of neglect. Once upon a time in this America, the prominence of black sports figures the likes of Lebron James, Serena Williams, and Stephen Curry would be difficult to imagine even in the most optimistic of terms. Without the pain and sacrifice of men like Marlin Briscoe, Arthur Ashe, and Lew Alcindor, Cam Newton might have been an NFL tight end instead of the starting quarterback in Super Bowl 50. No Charlie Sifford, no Tiger Woods. No Althea Gibson, no Serena Williams. The following list highlights some, but certainly not all, of the more notable ground-breaking black athletes who our modern black athletes owe a debt of gratitude. These athletes paid the premium price for the gift cards of opportunity, that modern black athletes have the privilege to spend with comparably little fuss, and seemingly unlimited fanfare. So let’s take a moment shall we? And remember these trailblazers, and their collective achievements that have so influenced modern American sports, and it’s cultural significance.
#11. Earl Lloyd / Nathaniel Clifton / Chuck Cooper / NBA Pioneers (1950)
These three athletes represent the very first African-Americans to play in the National Basketball Association. 1950 was the seminal year. It’s ironic to think that a sport which is currently comprised of 75% African-Americans, once had a color barrier that needed breaking. To further enhance the irony, an Asian-American (Wataru Misaka, 1947) played in the NBA before any African-American. True story. The NBA has had to evolve in much the same way America has, in dealing with racial inequity. Kudos to Earl Lloyd, Nathaniel Clifton, and Chuck Cooper for their contribution to what is now arguably the most exciting sport in America.
#10. Curt Flood / Centerfield / St. Louis Cardinals / (1956 -1971)
Curt Flood‘s legacy was cemented with his infamous challenge to Major League Baseball’s archaic ‘Reserve Clause’. The unfair cog in a system that allowed teams to keep a hold of players who were originally signed, for the life of their career. Flood started a battle that eventually ended a system where players were, for lack of a better term, ‘owned’ by their organizations. The point of demarkation came on October 7, 1969, when the St. Louis Cardinals decided to trade Flood to the ‘Philadelphia Phillies’. He balked, citing among other reasons what he perceived as a racist fan base, and dilapidated facilities. After getting the blessing of Marvin Miller and the player’s union, Flood decided to forfeit a contract worth $100k, and apply for free agency with the likelihood of challenging the reserve clause in federal court. In sitting out the entire 1970 season Flood endured hate mail, ridicule, and death threats. He was eventually traded to the Washington Senators later in 1971 and retired after one year . Four years later in 1975 the ‘Reserve Claus’ that Flood challenged was effectively overturned with the the ‘Seitz Decision’. That ruling opened the ‘flood gates’ to the widespread free agency market that professional baseball players benefit so richly from today.
#9. Marlin Briscoe / Quarterback / Denver Broncos (AFL) / (1968)
Marlin Briscoe was the first African-American starting quarterback in professional football. In 1968, Briscoe was drafted as a wide receiver in the 14th round by the Denver Broncos of the American Football League. He received his opportunity to start at QB only after starting quarterback Steve Tensi went down with a broken collarbone, and back-up QB Joe DiVito left coaches wanting. Briscoe took full advantage, and punctuated this by setting the Bronco’s rookie record for touchdown passes that season with 14. Despite this achievement, in 1969 the Bronco’s opted to switch him back to wide receiver. He asked for and was granted his release, and signed with the Buffalo Bills. However, he was again denied the opportunity to play quarterback as Buffalo already had All-Pro QB Jack Kemp on their roster. Marlin Briscoe never played quarterback again professionally, but his performance laid a foundation for future African-American quarterback hopefuls. If for nothing else he is owed a great debt of gratitude from the modern African-American professional quarterback.
#8. Condredge Holloway / Quarterback / University of Tennessee / (1971 – 1975)
In the year of our lord 1972, Condredge Holloway became the very first African-American starting quarterback at a Southeastern Conference (SEC) university when he took the signal calling reigns at the University of Tennessee. This was a monumental occurrence at the time especially given the part of the country, and the conference where it happened. An amazing athlete, Holloway also holds the distinction of being the first African-American baseball player in Univ. of Tennessee history. Because of the prevailing belief that black football players couldn’t be successful NFL quarterbacks, when Holloway was drafted in the 12th round of the 1975 draft, it was as a defensive back. Undeterred, he went on to play QB in the Canadian Football League (CFL), for the Ottawa Rough Riders. At the end of the day his breaking of the SEC quarterback color line is historically significant, and deserves all kinds of respect.
#7. Jesse Owens / 4 Time Olympic Gold Medalist / (1936 Berlin Games)
During his time Jesse Owens was widely considered the single greatest athlete in Track & Field history. In addition to being the world’s fastest human being. His legacy was cemented in the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany, where he won four gold medals. He was the unimpeachable star of those games, and the pride of a still racially segregated America. His dominant performance not only shattered madman Adolf Hitler’s ‘Master Race’ philosophy to pieces, but showed the world that the African-American athlete could not only perform, but excel at world-class levels. Owens provided a tremendous source of pride for the black community, and perhaps helped shine some light on the road to enlightenment for the white community. It would be difficult to overstate the impact this had at the time, and he should always be remembered.
#6. Jack Johnson / World Champion Boxer / (1908–1915)
Jack Johnson, nicknamed ‘The Galveston Giant’ was the first African-American World Heavyweight Champion. A feat he accomplished during the heights of the shameful ‘Jim Crow’ era in American history. His championship reign was marred by controversy, and racism. Unfortunately, Johnson’s behavior out of the ring helped to facilitate the ire of white America. His predilection for dating white women, in public, fostered outrage and prompted him to be arrested and charged in 1912 for violating the racially motivated ‘Mann Act’. Jack Johnson was a notorious man, but a great fighter. He scratched and clawed for an opportunity to fight James J. Jeffries for the heavyweight crown. However, Jeffries refused to fight Johnson. Which was understandable from his perspective, although unfortunate for Johnson. Back then black boxers were banned from fighting for the Heavyweight Championship. It wasn’t until 6 years later that he finally got his chance against then reigning world champion Tommy Burns, in Sydney, Australia. But only after Johnson basically stalked Burns, literally following him around the planet for several years, constantly challenging him, questioning his manhood, and taunting him in the press. It was widely rumored that Burns agreed to fight Johnson only after being promised an astronomical payday. Johnson’s 14 round victory over Burns created such animosity in the white community, that they called for the now famous “Great White Hope”. Someone (caucasian) to rise up and beat Johnson, and take the heavyweight title back for the whites. Yes, this really happened. Here in America. Jack Johnson proved that African-American fighters could, and would be true world champions to reckon with.
#5. Althea Gibson / 2 Time Wimbledon Champion / (1957, 1958)
Before there was a Serena Williams, there was Althea Gibson. She was not only the first black woman to break the International Tennis color barrier, she was the first African-American to do so, period. She became the first African-American, man or woman to win a Grand Slam tennis title, ‘The French Open’ of 1956. She followed that by winning Wimbledon, and the U.S. Nationals (now U.S. Open) in 1957. She repeated those feats again the very next year in 1958. Althea did all of this while America was in the throws of the Civil Rights movement. By the end of her career, Althea won a then record 11 Grand Slam tournaments. In 1971 she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, as well as the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. Althea was amazing, and the Williams sisters, among many others, owe her a debt of gratitude.
#4. Ernie Davis / Running Back / Syracuse University / (1959 -1961)
In keeping with the theme of firsts, Ernie Davis was the first collegiate African-American athlete to win the exalted Heisman Trophy in 1961. A triumph for his illustrious football career at Syracuse University. Tragically Davis never played a single down in a professional football game. He was diagnosed with leukemia in 1962, just a year removed from his Heisman, and later passed away at the tender age of 23. Like all of his collegiate African-American contemporaries, Davis faced overt racism in his collegiate career, regardless of his greatness. Including after his Cotton Bowl win in Dallas, Texas when at the banquet ceremony, he and two other of his black teammates were asked to leave immediately following the trophy presentation. They were forced to attend a different party escorted by local NAACP representatives. However, Davis’s achievements were appreciated by a much higher power, as President John F. Kennedy requested to meet him while in New York City for the Heisman ceremony. Ernie was the first of what has become the many African-American Heisman Trophy winners. An achievement that can never be bested, and always revered.
#3. Jim Brown / Running Back / Cleveland Browns / (1957 – 1965)
There is perhaps no other person in the African-American community with the gravitas of the legendary Jim Brown. He represented then what he represents now, the pride of the black community. Jim Brown represents strength and character, as he continues to be a serious voice at the forefront of a great many socio-politcal issues, especially as they relate to the black community. An impact that transcends his illustrious, and record-setting Hall of Fame NFL career. At the time of his sudden retirement in 1965 he owned the record books, including the record holder for rushing yards in a single-season (1,863) career rushing yards (12,312), in addition to being the all-time leader in rushing touchdowns (106), and total touchdowns (126), you can add leader in all-purpose yards (15,549) to that list. We could actually go on, but you get it. Here’s the thing; he accomplished all of that in just a 9 year NFL career, playing 14, not 16 game seasons! This is no small part of the reason he is widely considered the greatest football player of all-time. No argument here. #Goat
#2. Jackie Robinson / Infielder / Brooklyn Dodgers / (1947 -1956)
Before there was Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and the like, there was a man named Jack Roosevelt Robinson, best known as Jackie. In fact, it could be argued that without Jackie Robinson’s groundbreaking sacrifice, the careers of the aforementioned men would not have been possible. It could also be argued that Jackie’s suffering and perseverance in breaking Major League Baseball’s color-line was almost biblical in nature. A journey that started six days before the 1947 season, when Branch Rickey, President and General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, called Jackie’s number up to join the major league ranks. It would be difficult to overstate the blowback he received from the old school MLB guard, and resistant fellow players alike. He was mistreated, taunted, even assaulted (within the game) in furious fashion. He had to stand, and take it. This was part of a larger socio-political calculation masterminded by Branch Rickey. Undeterred, Jackie went on to play 151 games, batting .297, with 175 hits, scoring 125 runs, slugging 31 doubles, 5 triples, and going yard 12 times. He also led the league in stolen bases (29). Numbers that earned Robinson 1947 Rookie of the Year honors. His sacrifice took a huge toll on his health later in life, and he died at a young 53 years old. Jackie’s influence and character lent considerable cache to the Civil Rights Movement, and on until this day.
#1. Muhamad Ali / World Champion Boxer / (1960 – 1980)
What makes Muhamad Ali the number one athlete on our list of immortals? His legendary political cache. The stand he took on the Vietnam War based on his religious and political principles not only cost him the prime years of his career, but for a time, his career itself. There has never been such a prominent athlete before or since, black or white, who was willing to sacrifice their career for a political stance larger than simple athletics. His courageous, and unapologetically principled actions made Ali a trailblazing icon. Derided by many at the time, history has shown that he illuminated the possibility of the African-American athlete as political spokesman. The athlete as something much more than a corporate salesperson. He reminded America that the African-American athlete was a human being first, and entertainer a distant second, if need be. When modern African-American athletes choose not to take a stand on socio-political issues that affect their communities, they do so knowing that they do have a choice. A choice Muhamad Ali made possible. Ali was never shy about proclaiming himself ‘The Greatest’. We are in no position to disagree, nor would we ever feel inclined to do so.