February may be Black History Month, but it's always a good time to celebrate the accomplishments of African Americans throughout history. Here at FanBuzz, we would like to recognize 11 influential black athletes and coaches who made a huge impact on the sport they either played or coached in. Some of the names are familiar, but there may be one or two you may not recognize, and I hope that bringing them to light and giving them the recognition they deserve will give you a greater appreciation for what they accomplished.
So, enjoy my list of the 11 most influential African American athletes and coaches in sports history. They are all absolute trailblazers.
11. Bill Russell
There will be a lot of talk about the late Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell at the 2023 All-Star Game in Utah and rightfully so. The 11-time NBA Champion Boston basketball team leader was also a five-time NBA MVP and a two-time NCAA Champion with the San Francisco Dons. A superstar on and off the court, Russell stood up for black athletes even after his days of collecting rebounds were over. The NBA legend refused to accept his Hall of Fame ring until the Springfield institution inducted Chuck Cooper, the first black payer to ever be drafted into the NBA. It only took 40 years, but Cooper got his induction and Russell finally accepted his ring. Across America, from Seattle to Chicago to Boston, Bill Russell's legend looms large.
10. Arthur Ashe
Arthur Ashe is not recognized enough for his accomplishments. He is the first and only African American man to win multiple tennis Grand Slam titles, winning the 1968 US Open, 1970 Australian Open and 1975 Wimbledon. He was also one of the first athletes to announce he was battling AIDS. His courage and guts remains one of the reasons he is a legend across the sporting world.
9. Michael Jordan
MJ makes the list because he was one of the first players in ANY sport to have his own shoe brand named after him and one of the first athletes of any kind to be a multi-millionaire. His Airness opened the door for many Black athletes with his multi-million dollar contracts, and he inspired an entire generation that built the NBA into the juggernaut league it is today. Even though he is retired, his shoes are still as popular as ever. The Air Jordan star worth a staggering $1.6 billion today.
8. Eddie Robinson
With 408 career wins and nine national championships among Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Robinson was one of the winningest coaches of all time in college football at Grambling State. Despite being at a small school, he sent several players to the NFL including Doug Williams, Buck Buchanan, Willie Brown and Charlie Joiner. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1997.
7. Frank Robinson
Frank Robinson was best known as a great outfielder for the Cincinnati Reds and Baltimore Orioles. Later, he would become the first African American hired as a manager in Major League Baseball. He wasn't all that successful as his tenure as baseball manager, but he opened the door for other Black managers like Dusty Baker and Cito Gaston, who became the first Black manager to win a World Series title in 1992. Needless to say, the late Frank Robinson earned his spot on our list of influential black athletes and then some.
6. Doug Williams
Doug Williams, for those of you who may not know or don't remember, was the first African American starting quarterback to win a Super Bowl. For years, a lot of Black quarterbacks coming out of college were told they weren't good enough or smart enough to play the position, but Williams changed all of that leading the Washington Redskins not only to the playoffs, but eventually to a Super Bowl XXII win in 1988. The football player's win proved that, yes, Black quarterbacks are indeed good enough and smart enough to play the position.
5. Serena Williams
The female tennis player with the most Grand Slam titles in this tennis era (23) is second only to Margaret Court, but she probably deserves a higher ranking here. Serena has been instrumental in pushing for higher pay for women in tennis, and she continues to play at a high level to this day while continuing to fight for the rights of others. Serena Williams is more than the best African American woman athlete of all time. She's an icon.
4. Jesse Owens
What Jesse Owens did in the 1936 Olympic Games proved that a Black man could not only compete with a white man, but can be better than him, too. Even more important, Owens did it all in Berlin, Germany, right in front Adolf Hitler. Owens won four Olympic gold medals and literally made Hitler and his theory that the Aryan race was superior look absolutely foolish on the international stage. The track and field athlete will forever be a legend.
3. Tiger Woods
There hasn't been a golfer before or since who had as much impact as Tiger Woods. Woods is second only to Jack Nicklaus in major wins on the PGA Tour and is one of the first Black billionaires. When Tiger is in the hunt, it is still must-see TV. Woods hadn't won a major in several years prior to capturing the 2019 Master's Tournament in an emotional comeback. He is still considered one of the best golfers, if not the best golfer, of all time.
2. Frederick Douglass "Fritz" Pollard
A lot of people know that Tony Dungy was the first African American coach to win a Super Bowl, but Fritz Pollard was the first African American to become a head coach in the NFL. Many may not know this, but Pollard was a star running back at Brown University and was their first African American player. Pollard did more than just play football, he was also the owner of his own team, the Brown Bombers, and started one of the first Black newspapers in the country with the New York Independent News. If it wasn't for Fritz Pollard, there would be no Tony Dungy.
1. Jackie Robinson
You probably already know Jackie Robinson was the first African American to integrate any professional sport when he joined the MLB in 1947, but he is No. 1 on this list because of all the racism he had to endure. He was insulted, harassed and taunted not only by fans, but by players and managers of other teams as well despite winning the 1947 Rookie of the Year and 1949 National League MVP awards. He could have easily fought back, but he didn't. Robinson became one of the greatest baseball players of all time and is a Hall of Famer. He endured and broke the sport's color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers so others could persevere, making him a pioneer of the American Civil Rights Movement and one of the most influential Black athletes.
- Muhammad Ali, boxer iconically known for his activism who needs little introduction
- Althea Gibson, tennis player who was first Black woman to compete on the world tennis tour and first African American to win a Grand Slam title (1956 French Open)
- Shani Davis, speed skater who was first Black athlete to win a gold medal in an individual events at the Winter Olympics
- LeBron James, basketball player who has won four NBA MVP awards and is a 17-time All-Star
- Jack Johnson, boxer and the first Black heavyweight champion
- Wilma Rudolph, track and field athlete and three-time Olympic gold medalist known as "the fastest woman in the world."
- Florence Griffith Joyner, sprinter and three-time Olympic gold medalist known for eclectic style and world record-setting speed
- Joe Louis, boxer who had the longest single reign as champion in boxing history
- Simone Biles, four-time Olympic gold medalist and most-decorated gymnast of all time
- Jim Brown, NFL player and three-time MVP considered one of the greatest college and professional football players ever
- Venus Williams, sister of Serena also considered one of the greatest tennis players ever for winning seven Grand Slam singles titles.
- Barry Bonds, MLB player who holds the record for most career home runs (762)
- Hank Aaron, MLB player who previously held the record for most career home runs (755)
This article was originally published on February 12, 2019, and has been updated since.
MORE: Who Was the First Black Player in NFL History?
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