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Black History Month Blog Series: Black Excellence, and Advocacy in Sports

By: Stephanie Yanez and Sydney Kovach

With the Super Bowl and the Olympics at the top of people’s minds, JCI celebrates exceptional Black athletes and their heroic efforts to promote racial equality and inclusion in sports.

1968 Olympics

Track and field stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos bowed their heads and raised their fists throughout the duration of the U.S. national anthem after having won the 200m final and setting a world record. They did this to stand in solidarity with those who were back in the U.S. fighting against racial injustice. Six months prior to the 1968 Olympics, Civil Rights Leader Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated and protests had erupted across the country.

Rafer Johnson

During his time as an undergraduate at UCLA, Johnson was a two-sport student athlete, competing in track and field and playing basketball for John Wooden. While he was a student, Johnson won a silver medal in the decathlon at the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. He was later elected student body president in 1959 before winning the gold medal in the decathlon at the Olympics in Rome. Johnson was a captain of the 1960 U.S. Olympic team and was the first African American to carry the American flag during the opening ceremonies.

After retiring from sports, Johnson worked with the NAACP and the Urban League to promote voter registration and fight against housing discrimination. Johnson also worked with the Peace Corps and later advised Robert Kennedy during his 1968 presidential campaign. When Kennedy was shot on June 5, 1968, Johnson helped subdue the gunman and turned the gun over to police. Johnson later helped establish a western branch of the Special Olympics.

Maya Moore

Four-time WNBA champion, two-time Olympic gold medalist, and two-time world champion Maya Moore left basketball to focus on criminal justice reform in the prime of her career. During her leave, Moore worked to help free Jonathan Irons from prison. At only 18, Irons was sentenced to 50 years in prison after being convicted of burglary and assault in 1998, despite a lack of physical evidence.

The Milwaukee Bucks

On August 26, 2020, National Basketball Association (NBA) The Milwaukee Bucks decided to walk out of their scheduled game to protest police brutality. Instead of simply choosing to not play and go home, they sat in the locker room for three hours drafting a team statement to release to the press. Because of their courageous behavior, the NBA canceled all games for that day and postponed many others. Other sports leagues, such as the MLB and NHL decided to postpone games. This received widespread attention as sports had only been back for a few weeks due to the COVID-19 pandemic that had brought games to a halt.

Naomi Osaka

At just 24 years old, four-time Grand Slam singles champion Naomi Osaka is ranked No.1 by the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). Besides being a great athlete she is also a great activist. Following the Milwaukee Bucks walkout, she decided to join in the protest and not play in the Western and Southern Open semifinal match. She stated, “As a black woman, I feel as though there are much more important matters at hand that need immediate attention, rather than watching me play tennis. I don't expect anything drastic to happen with me not playing, but if I can get a conversation started in a majority white sport I consider that a step in the right direction."

Carl Lewis

Carl Lewis, a nine-time Olympic gold medalist and eight-time world champion, was named Sports Illustrated’s ‘Olympian of the Century.’ Lewis said, “I want to be remembered as a person who felt there was no limitation to what the human body and mind can do and be the inspiration to lead people to do things they never hoped to do.”

Jesse Owens

Despite winning four gold medals – the 100 meter, the long jump, the 200 meter and the 400-meter relay – and two Olympic records, Owens faced racism throughout his life. Owens said, “When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn't ride in the front of the bus… I had to go to the back door. I couldn't live where I wanted. I wasn't invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn't invited to the White House to shake hands with the president, either.”

Colin Kaepernick

On August 26, 2016, Colin Kaepernick, who was the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, decided to sit during the playing of the national anthem in protest of the injustices and police brutality occurring across the country. He was met with a wave of backlash and death threats for deciding to not stand for the anthem. As a result, his career suffered. But his activism brought up important conversations on the importance of the Black Lives Matter Movement and also helped pave the way for other athletes to take a public stance.

Serena Williams

The tennis legend has set numerous records throughout her career. One of her many records is that she is the only player (male or female) to win three of the four grand slams: US Open, Australian Open, and Wimbledon six times. Aside from setting records, she is constantly fighting for equality for BIPOC folks and women.

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