Prominent Athletic Figures in Society
Professional athletes are widely known for their amazing physical abilities. No one could dunk like Michael Jordan, and no one could fight like Muhammad Ali. Often, though, these athletes accomplish great things outside of the sporting world. In some cases, these athletes use their prominent status for the betterment of society, drawing public focus on something that is important to them and their people. Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, and Jackie Robinson are three of countless examples of professional athletes that had tremendous impacts not only in their sport of choice, but also on American society.
Muhammad Ali, formerly Cassius Clay, had an exceptional boxing career, to put it modestly. His mixture of speed and strength with his prominent personality made for quite the character. Considered by many to be the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time and one of the greatest athletes of all time, Ali had an eventful history in and out of the ring. Cassius Clay’s boxing career included winning the light heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics at age 18, beating a more experienced Russian boxer (Rader, 230). “In February of 1963, the 21-year-old boxer stunned the world of sports by defeating Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight title” (Rader, 230).
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Muhammad Ali was equally well known for his personality as he was for his skills in the boxing ring. He was a man of words. These words took many forms such as poetry and trash talking, which often combined for a creative way for Ali to attempt to get in the head of his opponents. “Cassius had just come from the Columbia Records studio… where he was making an album, I Am the Greatest, a long pastiche of poems and skits composed wholly in terms of his impending fight with Sonny Liston” (Wolfe, 113). His artistic tendencies as well as his extreme confidence made for a very effective trash talker. For example, before his title fight against Sonny Liston, Ali said, “I’m gonna tell him right before the fight starts so he won’t forget it, ‘Sonny,’ I’m gonna tell him, ‘Sonny Liston, I don’t want you trying to crash my victory party tonight, you hear that? I want you to hear that now, ‘cause you ain’t gonna be able to hear anything eight rounds from now’” (Wolfe, 123).
As with the other athletes being discussed, there is more to Muhammad Ali than his athletic capabilities and ruthless personality. Throughout his early career, Ali went by his birthname, Cassius Clay. It wasn’t until after shocking the world by beating Sonny Liston in the heavyweight title fight when he changed his image. “He sent out an even greater shock when he announced that he had joined the Nation of Islam and had traded his ‘slave name’ for a new one: Muhammad Ali” (Rader, 230). This announcement brought about concern and outrage in some Americans, as well as inspiration for others. In the midst of intensifying civil rights conflicts, the Nation of Islam was encouraging a more radical philosophy compared to that of Martin Luther King Jr. This radical philosophy brought about concern, causing the media often refused to use his new name.
The concerns with Ali’s newly revealed religion had not yet reached a peak. This would come in 1966 when Ali was deemed eligible for the military draft. “Ali refused to go, officially stating that his religion did not allow him to participate in a war waged by a Christian country” (Rader, 231). His act as a conscientious objector resulted in him being stripped of his license and title but turned Ali into a powerful symbol for the African American community. Ali’s license would later be reinstated, and later he would reclaim the title, but his role as an American symbol would continue long after.
Muhammad Ali was one of many professional athletes that played a big role outside the athletic realm, another prominent figure of this kind is Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson is one of the most well-known professional baseball players in American history, as well as one of the most well-known figures in the civil rights movement. What is less well known is that Robinson competed, even excelled, at sports other than baseball. “At UCLA I became the university’s first four-letter man. I participated in basketball, baseball, football, and track, and received honorable mention in football and basketball” (Robinson, 10). Robinson was an exceptional athlete but grew up in the time period in which the Jim Crow south was present, and the rest of the country was not prone to change. Determined, Robinson continued to work and strive to make a life for himself in the world of sports. Robinson, with the help of the Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, later became the first African American to play in modern-era major league baseball.
This story of Robinson being the first African American modern-era MLB player is a notorious one but is only a fraction of Jackie Robinson’s life. Another piece to the story of Jackie Robinson’s life is his experiences in World War II. “Being drafted was an immediate possibility, and like all men in those days I was willing to do my part” (Robinson, 12). Even though he was more than willing to do his part, Robinson, along with the other African Americans in the armed forces, faced a very racist and discriminatory military. Even though the Jim Crow south was the only part of the country with de jure segregation, the military remained a segregated institution with separate units specially for African American soldiers. One of the many examples of the American military’s discriminatory views is the bussing system. “There were only six or seven seats assigned to blacks, and my men would be kept waiting despite the many empty seats available” (Robinson, 14). Robinson was later scorned for complaining about the situation, but later the situation improved slightly in the form of more seats being allocated to the black section. There are countless examples of segregation and racist acts Robinson experienced in his time in the military, but this remained an important part of his life.
Being the first African American in the modern-era major leagues, as well as a person who served in World War II, Robinson quickly became one of the most prominent figures in the American civil rights movement. Although Robinsons career ended before 1954, his influence on society extended far beyond that. He was very devoted to using his prominent status to make positive change in American society. “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives” (Robinson, 268). Perhaps the most recognizable quote from his autobiography, it truly shows how strongly Robinson felt about helping the oppressed African Americans that weren’t as lucky as him. Robinson was a major part of the desegregation of professional baseball but wanted to be a major part of improving the everyday life of not only African Americans, but the lives of every person he can.
He effectively used his prominent status to spark change, from civil rights to politics. One example of Robinson continuing to influence society is in his public support of Richard Nixon in his campaign to become president. His support of Nixon was not similar to the majority of the African American population, who largely supported John F. Kennedy in the race. Robinson met with Kennedy but was not impressed. “My very first reaction to the Senator [Kennedy] as one of doubt because he couldn’t or wouldn’t look me straight in the eye. My mother had taught me to be wary of anyone who talked to you with head bowed or shifty eyes,” he continued, “My second reaction, much more substantial, was that this was a man who had served in the Senate and wanted to be President but who knew little or nothing about black problems and sensibilities” (Robinson, 137). This was one reason of many that Robinson decided to have a public role in campaigning for Richard Nixon’s presidential race. This is one of many examples of Jackie Robinson using his prominent status to enact change in American society.
Another professional athlete that had a large impact on American society is Michael Jordan. Michael Jordan’s basketball career is an impressive one, to say the least. Largely considered the best basketball player of all time, Jordan is one of the famous athletes to ever live. Michael Jordan’s life is that of an unlikely superstar. “As a sophomore he was cut from his varsity basketball team” (LaFeber, 30). His basketball career was brought into national focus while attending the University of North Carolina. During his three years at UNC, Jordan was formidable, winning a national championship and being named first team all-American as well as winning the coveted Naismith award. He then played a long, successful career for the Chicago Bulls. “When Michael Jordan joined them in the autumn of 1984, the Chicago Bulls were on the ropes. They had won twenty-seven and lost fifty-five games the previous year” (LaFeber, 49). The Bulls, on the back of Jordan, soon became the best team in the association, and until recently, the best team of all time, winning six NBA championships.
There is no question of Michael Jordan’s success on the basketball court, but the business he created around his athletic abilities is what he is notorious for, even by people that are not fans of the sport. “Within the next ten years, Jordan became the most widely recognized and probably wealthiest athlete on earth” (LaFeber, 49). Jordan became a worldwide phenomenon and took advantage of the attention. After signing with Nike, a Jordan line of shoes blossomed into a line of clothing, soon becoming the most famous brand in the world. Jordan discovered how to make a fortune long after an athletic career simply by having his name, and he was not the only person to monetize his success. “The NBA meanwhile became a television goldmine not only in the United States, but globally. It was quite a decade—an era made possible by Jordan’s athletic skills, his marketing instincts, a new type of corporation exemplified by Nike, and the technology of communication satellites and cable that made the globe into one mammoth television audience” (LaFeber, 49). Jordan’s successes on the court and in business expanded the world of sports. Famous players brand themselves, signing deals with major companies, creating a line of products in their name. The business of Jordan opened a door to the rest of professional athletes, men and women alike, and transitioned the world of sports into the modern consumer market.
These professional athletes each excelled at their sports, accomplishing a great many things in the ring, on the field, and on the court, as many others have. What sets these athletes apart from the countless with impressive athletic capabilities is their actions outside of the realm of sports. The thing Ali, Robinson, and Jordan have in common other than athleticism is that they left a lasting impact off the court. Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson acted to improve society through the use of the platform they built with their athleticism. Michael Jordan’s athleticism allowed him to use his keen business mind to become one of the most famous athletes of all time, opening the door for his successors to do the same after him. All three of these figures did their part to leave the world a better place they found it, and they were able to successfully use their status as a celebrity to bring about that change.
- LaFeber, Walter. Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism. W.W. Norton & Company, 2002.
- Rader, Benjamin G. American Sports: from the Age of Folk Games to the Age of Televised Sports. Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2009.
- Robinson, Jackie, and Alfred Duckett. I Never Had It Made: An Autobiography of Jackie Robinson. HarperCollins, 1995.
- Wolfe, Tom. “The Marvelous Mouth. Cassius Clay: ‘Man, if I get whupped, they’re gonna run me out of the country!’” Esquire, 1963.