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Sports' 20 most influential African-Americans

By TOM JONES
Published February 19, 2008


February is Black History Month. So today, we look at the 20 most important and influential African-Americansin sports history.

1. Jackie Robinson

Courageously broke baseball's color barrier in 1947 - a time when segregation was the social norm in America. Robinson's impact and influence was so great that baseball has retired his No.42, and his name is evoked almost daily in sports circles. Not only did he break baseball's color barrier, but he paved the way and became an inspiration for African-Americans in all walks of life.

2. Muhammad Ali

In the arena, arguably the greatest boxer in history. Outside the arena, a symbol of the controversial 1960s. Ali stood behind his beliefs and became a leader for racial equality and opposition to the Vietnam War. And he changed how athletes dealt with the media and how the media dealt with athletes.

3. Jim Brown

Some still think he is the greatest football player ever. Although he retired in his prime at age 30 in 1966, Brown remains one of the strongest voices in the African-American community and continues to work with young people in life-skills and anti-gang campaigns.

4. Jesse Owens

Not only an inspiration for African-Americans but for all Americans when he won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics in front of Hitler and his idea the blacks and the rest of the world were inferior to his "master race."

5. Joe Louis

One of boxing's greatest fighters, Louis is best remembered for losing and then coming back to defeat German Max Schmeling in 1938 - before America's eventual involvement against Nazi Germany in World War II. Legendary sportswriter Jimmy Cannon once wrote that Louis was "a credit to his race - the human race."

6. Michael Jordan

Quite possibly the best and most famous athlete of any color to ever live. His talent combined with his charisma, intelligence and business savvy made him, perhaps, the most marketable athlete ever. The sports landscape - particularly how players are used to pitch products - changed forever because of Jordan.

7. Wilma Rudolph

Classy track and field star won three gold medals at 1960 Olympics and became the chief reason why young black girls took up track and field in the generations to follow - an influence that remains strong to this day.

8. John Carlos/Tommy Smith

At the 1968 Olympics, these two track stars raised black-gloved fists during the U.S. national anthem at their medal ceremony to protest, in part, the poverty and treatment of black people in America. It brought the issue of race and discrimination into living rooms throughout the world in one of the most powerful demonstrations in sports history.

9. Arthur Ashe

Ashe, the only African-American man to win Wimbledon, was a staunch civil-rights supporter not only in America but internationally, including anti-apartheid causes in South Africa and the fight for rights of undocumented immigrants in the United States. He raised awareness of AIDS before he died in 1993 from complications of the virus contracted after a blood transfusion.

10. Hank Aaron

Despite death threats and harassment from racists, Hammerin' Hank showed grace and class while breaking the Major League Baseball home run record held by Babe Ruth. To this day, Aaron continues to work as a baseball executive and ambassador to fight for the rights of minorities, particularly among baseball's front offices.

11. Curt Flood

Comparing baseball's reserve clause to slavery, this St. Louis Cardinals outfielder refused to accept a trade after the 1969 season. Although he lost his case in the U.S. Supreme Court, his groundbreaking objection led players to fight the reserve clause and eventually gain free-agency rights.

12. Tony Dungy

The first African-American coach to win the Super Bowl remains socially active and is out front on the causes of African-Americans, faith and family. One of the most beloved figures in sports because of his humility, class, honesty and lifestyle.

13. Don King

One of sports' most controversial figures, yet there is no denying this hair-raising promoter has had more influence over professional boxing than any other figure during the past 40 years. His influence over the days when fighters such as Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman were at the top of the sport ultimately led to today's massive purses and pay-per-view events.

14. Althea Gibson

Called "the Jackie Robinson of tennis" for breaking that sport's color barrier, she won five Grand Slam events in the late 1950s. She went on to be a champion of youth sports programs and other areas of public service.

15. Tiger Woods

On his way to becoming the greatest golfer ever, Woods, whose father was black, single-handedly has made the sport, once followed almost exclusively by middle- to upper-class white society, popular among all races and socioeconomic backgrounds.

16. Magic Johnson

Helped revive the NBA and make it as popular as it is today. More important, became one of the first openly HIV-positive celebrities/athletes and has since become a leading voice and contributor in HIV/AIDS prevention, safe sex and other social causes.

17. Jack Johnson

The first African-American to win the heavyweight boxing title. His victory over James Jeffries on July4, 1910, sparked race riots through the country. Once called the most famous and most infamous African-American on Earth.

18. Jackie Joyner-Kersee

A six-time Olympic medalist, including three golds, in track and field. And she scored more than 1,000 points in basketball for UCLA. Simply put, probably the greatest female athlete of all time. And she did it without the performance-enhancing drugs that have ravaged track and field.

19. Harlem Globetrotters

Founded in 1927, this predominantly black team has entertained crowds of all colors, races, religions and nationalities with its unique brand of basketball that mixes incredible skill and hilarious shenanigans. The team has played more than 20,000 games in more than 100 countries and remains a top draw wherever it goes.

20. Robert Johnson

The founder of BET (Black Entertainment Network) became the first African-American to own a major sports franchise when he led the group that acquired the expansion Charlotte Bobcats in 2004.