When we think of athletes that have led movements or broken down barriers with regard to diversity, we typically think of either “firsts” or activists. Jackie Robinson was the first Black player in Major League Baseball; Arthur Ashe was the first Black tennis player to reach several different accomplishments; Muhammad Ali was a civil rights activist at the height of his dominance. Undoubtedly, these are some of the titanic figures of sport, both in general and when it comes to discussion about diversity and inclusion.
At the same time though, it may be the case that we allow these figures to overshadow what some more modern athletes have done to make their sports and the communities around them more diverse. So in this post we’re going to highlight a handful of athletes who just in recent decades have helped to make the world of sports a more inclusive and accepting place (even if it’s still well short of where we’d like it to be).
Tiger Woods rose to prominence long after the first Black players entered professional golf. The first Black player was in fact Charlie Sifford, who joined the PGA Tour in 1961 once a “caucasion-only” policy went out of practice. And frankly, we probably don’t talk about or celebrate Sifford or his contemporaries enough. What Tiger Woods did for professional golf, however, looms large despite his not being a “first.”
Simply put, Woods took over a sport that was thoroughly dominated by white players. Golf is viewed by many as a white sport not just at the professional level, but from the top down. It’s played by wealthy white students and at exclusive country clubs (many of which prohibited Black membership until mere decades ago). And as a result it’s no wonder that the players who make it to the professional ranks are almost entirely white. But the face of golf these last 20 or 25 years has been that of Tiger Woods — an African-American man, and one with Asian heritage as well. Through sheer dominance and charisma, Woods came to command the sport. And though we have not seen waves of minority golfers ascending to the pro ranks in his wake, there is no questioning that he’s made the sport look and feel more accessible and more inclusive.
Venus & Serena Williams
It seems almost lazy to compare Venus and Serena Williams to Tiger Woods, but in a sense their story is much like his, at least as relates to diversity. They were not the first minority athletes to thrive in professional tennis, but together they took command of a very white sport and transformed it forever. Virtually every woman on tour — foreign, American, white, non-white, and so on — talks about having been inspired by the Williams sisters growing up. And among those women are several extremely successful and promising minority athletes, from Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys, to Coco Gauff and Naomi Osaka.
It is not hard to imagine these women choosing other sports or professions had it not been for Venus and Serena.
Allen Iverson doesn’t immediately spring to mind in conversations about diversity in sports, because by the time he was a college and NBA star, basketball was already a predominantly Black sport. It was not outwardly a Black culture though, and that’s where Iverson transformed the NBA. Really, it started with fashion. Iverson unabashedly embraced what many now look back on and refer to as hip-hop culture in the way he dressed on his way to and from games. Then-commissioner David Stern responded by implementing dress codes, about which Iverson was defiant. And this simple but significant issue is credited now with having shifted the culture of the league. In the simplest terms, Iverson established that players could be themselves, even if that meant presenting an image more in touch with Black culture than some older (and white) league figures were comfortable with.
Interestingly enough, Iverson in his retirement has reportedly been palling around with another major figure who brought greater diversity to sport — or at least to the sport-like world of competitive poker. An article delving into athletes who excel at poker included a few words on A.I., and noted that he has at times played with Phil Ivey — arguably the first prominent Black player on the pro poker tour, and perhaps the best to ever play the game.
The subject of diversity in pro football is one we posted about with regard to the Super Bowl and league coverage in general not long ago. Frankly it’s a serious issue. The league at this point is 70% Black, but is covered largely by white broadcasters and analysts. Most head coaches, as well as those in ownership and front offices, are also white. And when the league addresses these shortcomings or involves itself in social justice movements, frankly it tends to ring hollow.
Even if all of that means there’s a lot of work to be done though, we frankly wouldn’t be talking about it the same way had it not been for Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick’s silent, peaceful protest movement (he knelt during national anthems to protest police brutality) essentially sparked a movement, and a conversation that’s going on to this day. Sadly, it caused a great deal of misguided backlash and was twisted even by working politicians into something it wasn’t meant to be. But with much of that backlash aimed against Black players and racial equality in America, it’s fair to say that Kaepernick somewhat inadvertently shined a light on the league’s problems with inclusivity. Things are still a mess on this front, but Kaepernick will one day be credited with getting the ball rolling toward a more accepting league.
Many more athletes could of course be mentioned here. Patrick Mahomes has become the face of the NFL, and has made it clear that he supports social justice movements — which could have a profound impact on the league. Mookie Betts may just be the best player in Major League Baseball, and was one of far too few MLB players to kneel in solidarity with those same movements during national anthem play in 2020. Naomi Osaka — an heir apparent to Serena Williams — was a powerful Black Lives Matter advocate at the 2020 U.S. Open, and will now shine as a powerful figure in the face of a wave of anti-Asian hate in the U.S. as well. The list goes on and on.
All of these are modern athletes we should keep in mind when we talk about the slow but sure expansion of diversity and inclusivity in sports.