University of Michigan’s first African American student
Samuel Codes Watson was the first African American student admitted to the University of Michigan. Born in South Carolina in 1832, Watson was mixed race and passed for white while attending Michigan. In 1857, he became one of the first African Americans to receive an M.D. from Cleveland Medical College. He later became Detroit’s first elected African American city official.
University of Michigan’s first female African American student
Mary Henrietta Graham was the first African American woman admitted to the University of Michigan.
Moses “Fleetwood” Walker becomes first African American baseball player at the University of Michigan
Walker became a businessman, inventor, newspaper editor, and author after leaving Michigan in 1883 to join a professional baseball team in Toledo before graduating. He became the first African American major leaguer when that Toledo team joined the American Association.
George Jewett becomes first African American football player in the Big Ten
Jewett was an American athlete who became the first African American football player at both the University of Michigan and Northwestern University, and in the Big Ten Conference. At Michigan, he was the leading rusher, scorer and kicker. Jewett was regarded as “one of the greatest stars” in Michigan football in the pre-Fielding Yost era. In addition to playing fullback and halfback, Jewett was also the team’s placekicker and has been called “the Afro-American phenomenon of the University of Michigan.”
George Poage first Black Olympic medalist
Poage makes history as the first Black American athlete to win an Olympic medal when he wins bronze medals in the 1904 St. Louis Olympics in the 200-meter hurdles (since discontinued) and the 400-meter hurdles. Poage competes despite many prominent Black leaders calling for a boycott of the Olympics that year because organizers had built segregated spectator facilities for the event and refused to integrate the Olympics or that year’s World’s Fair in St. Louis. Poage, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, is also the first Black athlete to win a race in the Big Ten Conference track championships.
Fritz Pollard breaks color barrier in professional football. Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Bill Willis and Marion Motley reintegrate the NFL.
Pollard, a Black man, begins his professional football career in 1919, joining the Akron Pros. Two years later in 1921, he becomes the first Black coach in NFL history after being named co-coach of the team. In 1923, Pollard becomes the first Black quarterback in the league’s history as a member of the Hammond Pros. After Pollard leaves the game, NFL owners refuse to sign Black players until 1946, when the Los Angeles Coliseum threatens not to host Los Angeles Rams home games unless the team signs an African American player. It was then that the Rams sign UCLA standouts Washington and Strode. Willis and Motley, two future Hall of Famers, would join the Cleveland Browns later that year. In 2005, Pollard is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
First African American to win an individual gold medal in the Olympics
In 1924, William DeHart Hubbard became the first African American to win an individual Olympic gold medal. During his senior year at Michigan (1925) Hubbard set the world record in the long jump. While the football coach, Fielding Yost, had barred African American players from football since 1901, in 1921, then Athletic Director Yost allowed one African American to join the track team. Hubbard was the only African American track team member during his four years at U-M.
DeHart Hubbard first Black Olympic gold medalist
Hubbard becomes the first Black American athlete to earn an Olympic gold medal when he wins the men’s long jump at the 1924 Paris Olympics. In a meet in Chicago in June 1925, Hubbard set a long jump world record of 7.89 meters (25 feet, 10 ¾ inches), and a year later in Cincinnati, equaled the world record in the 100-yard dash (9.6 seconds). Hubbard worked for the Cincinnati Public Recreation Committee after graduating from the University of Michigan. In 1942, Hubbard moved to Cleveland where he became a race relations adviser for the Federal Housing Authority until his retirement in 1967.
Olympic champion helps create Black History Month
Ralph Metcalfe was a public servant and Olympic champion. In the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Metcalfe was second in the 100-meter dash behind Jesse Owens, and teamed with Owens and two others on the gold-medal and world-record setting 4×100 relay team. He also won the silver medal at the Los Angeles Summer Olympics in 1932 in the men’s 100-meter dash and a bronze medal in the 200-meter dash. After his athletic career, he served four terms as a city council member in Chicago before serving in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1971-78. Metcalfe was a co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, and in 1977 introduced the resolution officially designating February as Black History Month, which became law in 1986. Committed to fighting against racism, Metcalfe said, “In the caucus we have decided to put the interests of Black people first—above all else, and that means even going against our party or our political leaders if Black interests don’t coincide with their positions.”
Jackie Robinson becomes the first Black player in Major League Baseball
“I am not concerned with your liking or disliking me. All I ask is that you respect me as a human being,” says Robinson, who breaks the MLB color barrier when he takes the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers after executive Branch Rickey signs him to a historic contract. Robinson wins the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 1947, and two years he later he’s honored as the league’s Most Valuable Player. Robinson helps the Dodgers win six National League pennants and the 1955 World Series title. In 1962, Robinson becomes a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
We are Penn State
In 1948, Penn State football played well enough to be selected to play in the Cotton Bowl against Southern Methodist University. During this time, the Cotton Bowl was a segregated game and Penn State had Wally Triplett, the first African American to earn a varsity letter at Penn State. When both schools scheduled meetings to make the decision to remove African American players from the team to play in the bowl game, team captain Steve Suhey shared his opposition of the meetings with the statement “We are Penn State. There will be no meetings.” Triplett was able to play and ended up scoring the game-tying touchdown.
Satchel Paige becomes first Negro League pitcher in Major League Baseball.
On his 42nd birthday, following an amazing career in the Negro Leagues, Satchel Paige made Major League Baseball (MLB) history becoming both the first Negro League pitcher in the American League and the oldest player to debut in the Major Leagues. Paige is one of baseball’s most prolific pitchers; having found success in both the Negro Leagues and MLB, he was also the first African-American pitcher inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Coachman first Black woman to win Olmypic gold
Alice Coachman became the first Black woman to win an Olympic gold medal when she won the high jump for the U.S. at the 1948 London Olympics. Coachman was often turned away from athletic facilities growing up because of her race and sex and trained where she could. Following her win in the Olympics, Coachman became the first Black woman to endorse an international product when the Coca-Cola Company hired her as a spokesperson and featured her in billboard advertising with Jesse Owens. Coachman has been credited with helping open the door for future U.S. Black women’s track stars such as Evelyn Ashford, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and Florence Griffith Joyner.
Ted Corbitt, “The Father of Distance Running”
Ted Corbitt, the grandson of slaves, was the first Black marathoner named to the U.S. Olympic team, finishing 44th in the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland. Corbitt is considered the “Father of Distance Running” in the United States, and for good reason. He ran his first Boston Marathon in 1951, and when he ran his last in 1974 at age 55, his time was only 34 seconds slower than his first race. Corbitt invented many things runners now take for granted, including course measurement and age-group competition. Corbitt’s 1964 book on course measurement set the standards for the sport worldwide and continues to be used today.
Charlie Sifford plays in his first PGA Tour
Charlie Sifford was the first African American to compete in PGA-sanctioned events following the removal of the PGA’s “Caucasian-only” membership clause in 1961. Sifford went on to win PGA Tour events in 1967 and 1969 as well as the 1975 PGA Seniors’ Championship and was the first African American to be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. He also was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014.
Althea Gibson wins Wimbledon
Althea Gibson is the first African American woman to win both the U.S. Nationals and Wimbledon titles in 1957 and she defended both titles in 1958. Throughout her career, Gibson wins a combined 11 Grand Slam titles in singles, doubles and mixed doubles and is inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971. In 1963, Gibson becomes the first Black golfer in the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) and played 171 events between 1963 and 1977.
Willie O’Ree Breaks the color barrier in the NHL
In 1958, the Boston Bruins call up O’Ree for two games, making him the first Black player in NHL history. Persevering through racism and an injury that left him nearly blind in his right eye, O’Ree begins his NHL career with a win over the Montreal Canadiens. Pro hockey is slow to recognize O’Ree’s accomplishments, but that does not stop him from taking a hands-on role in promoting diversity in the sport. Devoting his life to make the sport more diverse and inclusive, in 1998 O’Ree becomes the director of youth development for the NHL/USA Hockey Diversity Task Force. It isn’t until 2018 that he is inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame and 2021 that the Bruins retire his number. The NHL would also institute the annual Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award in his honor, given to an individual working to positively impact his or her community, culture or society through hockey.
Wilma Rudolph makes history at the 1960 Olympic Games
After making history as the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics, Rudolph refuses to attend any segregated celebratory events, making her homecoming parade the first integrated event in her hometown of Clarksville, Tenn. In 1963, Rudolph joins other Clarksville citizens in an attempt to integrate a local Shoney’s restaurant. Despite being a hometown and national hero, she’s denied entry because she is Black.
Otis Davis overcomes racism to become Olympic champion
As a man of Black and Native American heritage, Otis Davis endured racism growing up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in the height of the Jim Crow South. Like many others, he was not able to attend the high school closest to his home because of his race. Davis went on to serve four years in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War before enrolling in college at the University of Oregon. He would then win two gold medals at the 1960 Rome Olympics, taking the 400 meters in world-record time and two days later anchoring the U.S. 4×400-meter relay team to another gold medal and a world record. Davis was among a group of rising Black athletes who also won their first gold medals during the 1960 Rome Olympics, including Wilma Rudolph and Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay).
Cassius Clay wins first heavyweight title
Cassius Clay won his first heavyweight title after defeating Sonny Liston. After the fight Clay announced that he had converted and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Ali would later become the first fighter to win the world heavyweight championship on three separate occasions; successfully defending his title 19 times and cementing his place in history as “The Greatest.”
AFL All Star Game is moved from New Orleans to Houston.
After African American AFL players were confronted with discriminatory treatment on their arrival to New Orleans for the AFL All Star game, players refuses to play the game in city and it was ultimately moved to Houston, Texas.
President Lyndon Johnson signs the Hart-Celler Immigration Act
The Hart-Celler Act literally changes the face of America. Also known as the The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, it ends an immigration-admissions policies based on race and ethnicity and ends policies prioritizing immigrants from western and northern Europe which promoted the ideal of U.S. homogeneity. Beginning in 1965 when the Hart-Celler Act abolished racial quotas, the demographic makeup of America begins changing, as immigrants entering the United States under the new legislation came increasingly from countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, as opposed to Europe. When signing the act, President Johnson said, “This bill that we will sign today is not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions. It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives. … Yet it is still one of the most important acts of this Congress and of this administration. For it does repair a very deep and painful flaw in the fabric of American justice. It corrects a cruel and enduring wrong in the conduct of the American nation.”
Arthur Ashe Wins the US Open
Arthur Ashe becomes the first African American to win the U.S Open men’s singles champion. In 1975 he would also become the first African American male to win Wimbledon.
Marlin Briscoe becomes the first African-American Quarterback in modern-era football
Marlin Briscoe becomes the first African-American Quarterback in modern-era football.
Curt Flood & the advent of free agency
After the 1969 Major League Baseball season, the St. Louis Cardinals traded Curt Flood to the Philadelphia Phillies, a transaction the seven-time Gold Glover and 12-year major league veteran had no choice but to accept because of MLB’s Reserve Clause, which bound players to their club for as long as the team saw fit and allowed teams to trade or release players on a whim while affording players no freedom of movement. Flood, who had endured racism throughout his career and fought for racial justice off the field during the Civil Rights Movement, refused to play for the Phillies having put down roots in St. Louis, comparing the reserve clause to a form of slavery. On Christmas Eve, he wrote to MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn: “I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes…I believe I have the right to consider offers from other clubs before making any decisions.” After Kuhn denied his request, Flood sued Major League Baseball over the reserve clause, but ultimately, a 5-3 Supreme Court ruling in 1972 sided with baseball. Flood paid with his career, sitting out the 1970 season and playing only 13 games in 1971 with the Washington Senators. But his sacrifice opened the door for future players across sports. Inspired by Flood, MLB Players Association Executive Director Marvin Miller found two players – the Dodgers’ Andy Messersmith and Orioles’ Dave McNally – willing to play the 1975 season without a contract, and then attacked the reserve clause again, fighting for the player freedom Flood had tried to attain just a few years earlier. Arbitrator Peter Seitz agreed, and his landmark ruling paved the way for collectively bargained free agency as we now know it. “I doubt Curt or anyone – on or off the field in any sport — could fully contemplate the significance of the stance he took back in 1969,” current MLB Players Association Executive Director Tony Clark told USA TODAY in 2019, “but as a child and student of the civil rights movement, Curt had a heightened sense of awareness about justice and fairness. The stand he took affected all athletes who have enjoyed free agency for the last half century.”
Julius “Dr. J” Erving leads Nets to first ABA title
Julius “Dr. J” Erving is one of the most important players in the history of basketball. Erving led the Nets to their first ABA title in 1973–74, defeating the Utah Stars. His high-flying play style made him the face of the sport and his popularity was one of the primary reasons that the ABA merged with the NBA- changing the landscape of the sport and altering the trajectory for the league that we know and love today.
Reggie McAfee becomes first Black man to break four-minute mile
Reggie McAfee runs the mile in 3 minutes, 59.8 seconds in 1973 as a senior at the University of North Carolina. A week after his historic mile run, he broke the four-minute barrier again in winning the ACC championship and finished his career with seven sub-4-minute miles. After 26 years working for Xerox, McAfee starts the nonprofit Cross Country For Youth (CCFY) in 2006 to assist kids in the Charlotte, North Carolina, community. McAfee remains the executive director of CCFY, which introduces children ages 8-14 to cross country training, character building, nutrition concepts, and social-emotional training to develop the whole person.
Frank Robinson Becomes first African-American manager in MLB
Frank Robinson debuts as first African-American manager in major leagues for the Cleveland Indians.
Doug Williams overcomes racism to make NFL history, blaze trail for future quarterbacks
In 1978, Williams becomes the first Black quarterback to be drafted in the first round, coming out of Grambling State University, a historically Black college. Throughout his career, Williams faces racism from NFL fans as well as from the team that drafted him, the Buccaneers. After being forced out of the NFL for a few years, Williams signs with Washington and eventually leads the team in Super Bowl XXII, becoming the first Black quarterback to start a Super Bowl, which Washington wins in a 42-10 route behind Williams’ play. Williams, who is now a senior adviser for Washington and co-founder of the Black College Football Hall of Fame, blazes a trail for the next generation of Black quarterbacks. Entering the 2021 season, four of the five highest-paid players in the NFL, three of the past six MVPs and the past two passing yardage leaders are Black quarterbacks.
Los Angeles Raiders name first Black head coach in modern NFL history
After a slow start to the 1989 season, Raiders owner Al Davis promotes Art Shell to the team’s head coaching position, making him the first Black NFL head coach since Fritz Pollard in the 1920s. In six seasons from 1989-1994, Shell finishes with a winning record five times and makes the playoffs three times, including an AFC Championship Game appearance. Shell goes 54-38 during that span, and in 2006, he returns as coach of the Raiders for one season. Diversity and equity in hiring continues to be an issue more than 30 years later, however. Entering the 2021 season, only three of the league’s 32 coaches are Black.
Derartu Tulu and Elana Meyer take victory lap to unite Africa
Derartu Tulu of Ethiopia wins the 10,000 meters at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics in a spirited battle with Elana Meyer of South Africa, becoming the first Black African woman to win a gold medal. Tulu and Meyer, who is white, share a hand-in-hand victory lap after the race that many saw as a symbol of hope for a new Africa as apartheid in South Africa was gradually coming to an end. Tulu also won the 10,000m in 2000 at the Sydney Olympics and won the event at the 2001 World Athletics Championships in Edmonton, Alberta, after having a daughter in 1998. After finishing third in the 10,000m at the 2004 Olympics, Tulu won the 2009 New York City Marathon at the age of 37. Tulu has been the president of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation since November 2018.
Plaatjes overcomes apartheid in South Africa, becomes champion marathoner
Mark Plaatjes was born under apartheid rule in South Africa and could not compete in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics because South Africa was banned from competition. Plaatjes, who is Black, applied for political asylum in the United States to provide a better life for his daughter. Plaatjes won the 1991 Los Angeles Marathon and was sixth in the 1993 Boston Marathon to qualify for the U.S. team to the World Athletics Championships, receiving his U.S. citizenship three weeks before the Championships began. In Stuttgart, Germany, Plaatjes used a late surge to win the marathon and remains the only American man to win the event at the World Athletics Championships. Plaatjes has 38 career marathon wins.
University of Michigan hires first African American athletic director
Tom Goss became the first African American athletic director of the University of Michigan. During his short tenure, Goss led Michigan to national titles in football, ice hockey and men’s gymnastics.
Byron Scott becomes first and only coach to lead the Nets to the NBA Finals
In 2000, Scott took over a struggling New Jersey Nets team. He was the head coach that lead a dramatic franchise turnaround, as the Nets raced to a franchise record of 52 wins in only his second season in charge. In the process, they won their first Atlantic Division crown and appeared in their first NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. The Nets lost to the Lakers but returned to win the Eastern Conference again the following season, making it back-to-back NBA Finals appearances for Scott and co.
Bob Johnson Buys NBA Expansion Team in Charlotte
The NBA awards its expansion franchise in Charlotte to Robert L. Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television, making him the first African American to become the principal owner of a major league sports team.
Indianapolis Colts’ head coach becomes first African-American to win Super Bowl
Indianapolis Colts’ Tony Dungy, becomes the first African-American head coach to win a Super Bowl Championship as the Colts defeat the Chicago Bears.
Bryan Clay represents Hawaii, wins Olympic gold
Bryan Clay, who has a Japanese mother and a Black father, is considered the best track and field athlete from the state of Hawaii. He captured the silver medal in the decathlon at the 2004 Athens Olympics before winning the decathlon at the 2005 World Athletics Championships. He wins gold in the event at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, joining an extensive line of American decathlete greats to achieve that feet. He later starts the Bryan Clay Foundation to support students in need and provide opportunities they otherwise would not have.
Black College Football Hall of Fame
To honor the greatest football players and coaches from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), the Black College Football Hall of Fame (BCFHOF) is established in October 2009 by founders and legendary NFL quarterbacks James Harris and Doug Williams. The BCFHOF has a permanent home at the Pro Football Hall of Fame to tell the story of HBCUs. The two organizations work together on joint programs and events, including the BCFHOF Classic. Currently, 34 of the 354 members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame are from an HBCU – nearly 10%.
Serena returns to Indian Wells after Williams sisters’ 13-year boycott
In 2015, Serena Williams returns to the Indian Wells Masters after the Williams sisters began boycotting the event in 2002 after racist abuse during the previous year’s tournament. Racial slurs, including the N-word, were directed at the sisters and their father following Venus’ withdrawal from her semifinal match vs. Serena because of an injury. The Williams sisters declared they would never return to the tournament. That 2001 incident represents only a fraction of the racist and sexist abuse, both unmistakable and coded, targeting the Williams sisters during their illustrious careers as two of the greatest athletes in sports history. (Serena’s 23 Grand Slam titles is most all time in the modern era.) Of that moment in 2001, Serena wrote it “haunted me for a long time. It haunted Venus and our family as well. But most of all, it angered and saddened my father. He dedicated his whole life to prepping us for this incredible journey, and there he had to sit and watch his daughter being taunted, sparking cold memories of his experiences growing up in the South.” But in 2015, Serena returns to the tournament, writing “Indian Wells was a pivotal moment of my story, and I am a part of the tournament’s story as well. Together we have a chance to write a different ending.”
Ibtihaj Muhammad wins Bronze Medal at 2016 Summer Olympic Games
Muhammad, a sabre fencer, wins the bronze medal as part of Team USA in the Team Sabre during the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Brazil. She becomes the first female Muslim American athlete to earn a medal at the Olympics and also the first Muslim American woman to wear a hijab while competing for the United States in the Olympics. Following her historic medal, Muhammad uses her platform to tackle racism and Islamophobia and educate others on making a difference. As a woman athlete who is both Black and Muslim, she’s working to remove the barriers, biases and stereotypes that stood in her way. In a 2018 Yahoo! Sports interview, she said “I can’t sit here as the first Muslim woman to represent the United States at the Olympic Games and be numb on these issues that directly affect me.”
University of Michigan’s Brienne Minor becomes first African-American woman to claim the NCAA singles title
Minor (2016-19) became the first African-American woman to claim the NCAA tennis singles title, winning as a sophomore in 2017. She earned four All-America citations, the most by a Wolverine, and ranks seventh in program history with 110 singles victories. She was also the 2016-17 Michigan Female Athlete of the Year.
New York Liberty Host First UNITY Game
In 2016, The Liberty’s UNITY social justice platform was initiated by players in response to the killings of unarmed Black men and women such as Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Alton Sterling and countless others. UNITY aims to ignite activism, educate fans, mobilize the local community, empower players and amplify marginalized voices through key partnerships, social media activations and events. In 2017, in partnership with RISE, the Liberty hosted their first UNITY game, which includes daylong programming such as a, including a town-hall style event, concourse activations, fan giveaways and community outreach.
Kevin Warren named commissioner of the Big Ten Conference
Kevin Warren is the sixth commissioner to hold the position and the first African American to be named commissioner at one of Division I’s five largest conferences.
In the aftermath of the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, police murder George Floyd, sparking national reckoning on race
Two months after Louisville police killed Breonna Taylor and less than a month after video showing Ahmaud Arbery’s murder is publicly released, video shows four Minneapolis officers involved in the murder of the 46-year-old Floyd. Officer Derek Chauvin pins Floyd to the ground, pressing his knee against Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Floyd died during the act of police brutality, sparking protests throughout the world. It’s estimated as many as 26 million Americans participate in demonstrations following his murder.
The Plaza at Barclays Center becomes Hub for Social Justice Activism
The public space outside of the Barclays Center, home to the Brooklyn Nets and New York Liberty, has been the scene of a variety of protests and other gatherings starting with the 2020 demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd. “We belong here” and “You belong here” signage at the front and rear entrances, respectively, serves as a constant affirmation and call to action.
Athletes join protests, help lead movement for racial equity
Two months after Louisville police kill Breonna Taylor and less than a month after video showing Ahmaud Arbery’s murder is publicly released, multiple athletes at all levels of sport take part in nationwide protests following the murder of George Floyd. Former Texans coach Bill O’Brien and star player J.J. Watt march in Houston, where Floyd was raised and is eventually laid to rest. The Boston Celtics’ Jaylen Brown drives 15 hours to protest in Atlanta, where the Indiana Pacers’ Malcolm Brogdon speaks about his grandfather marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. NBA stars Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Trae Young also join protests, and Michael Jordan’s Jordan brand announces a 10-year, $100 million donation to organizations fighting racism. Tennis star Coco Gauff, at 16 years old, speaks at a protest in Florida, and college athletes, including the Clemson football team pictured here, lead protests on campus and march through towns. Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad marches in Los Angeles, as does Miami Heat assistant Caron Butler. Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid and more than 100 other NHL players make statements denouncing racial inequality, acknowledging their privilege and pledging to learn and do better. Tyler Seguin protests in Dallas and Zdeno Chara in Boston, while Jonathan Toews meets with activists in Chicago. MLB players such as Aaron Judge, Dexter Fowler, Bryce Harper and C.C. Sabathia speak out through various platforms. Minnesota Timberwolves stars Karl Anthony-Towns and Josh Okogie help lead protests in Minneapolis and in the coming days the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx host a RISE Critical Conversation with the organization, city mayor and law enforcement to discuss next steps.
NFL stars share video demanding league condemns racism and support player protests
In the passionate video, players such as Patrick Mahomes, Michael Thomas, Saquon Barkley, Deshaun Watson, Odell Beckham Jr. and DeAndre Hopkins, among others, relay how not only could they have been George Floyd, but they are Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Eric Garner and the many other Black men, women and children killed. They also demand the NFL state that it condemns “racism and the systemic oppression of black people,” admit it was wrong to silence players from peacefully protesting and believe black lives matter. The following day, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell released a video and statement, saying those exact words: “We, the NFL, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of Black People. We, the NFL, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the NFL, believe Black Lives Matter.” Goodell later said he wants to be part of the much-needed change in America, and apologized to Colin Kaepernick for the league’s handling of his protests in 2016.
To see the video, click here.
WNBA players opt out of season to focus on social justice
On June 18, two-time WNBA champion Renee Montgomery tweeted she would opt out of the WNBA season to focus on social justice issues, including voter rights and helping HBCU Morris Brown College’s $5 million fundraising campaign to regain its accreditation. (Its accreditation application was accepted in November.) Natasha Cloud would opt out a few days later.
Softball players quit team, start new one after GM posts anti-kneeling tweet
Connie May, the team general manager for the Scrap Yard Dawgs, an independent professional softball team in Texas, posted a picture before the game of players standing for the national anthem and celebrated it with a tweet tagging Donald Trump. The coaches and players, many who will represent the U.S. at the 2021 Olympics, felt May used them as political pawns, and as a result they quit the team and started a separate one without May. Kelsey Stewart, one of the handful of Black players on the Scrap Yard Dawgs and Olympic team, said on Twitter, “I AM HURT … I am disgusted … as a BLACK softball player I DO NOT … DO NOT stand with a statement like this … if you didn’t understand racism and what was going on the last month. This … THIS IS IT. This is EXACTLY what we’ve been trying to change.”
NASCAR rallies behind Bubba Wallace after a noose is found in his stall
Less than two weeks after NASCAR bans the Confederate flag after comments from Wallace, the only Black driver in NASCAR’s top circuit, a noose is found in his garage stall at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama on June 21. NASCAR stands behind Wallace, releasing a statement saying it is “outraged” and launches an immediate investigation in collaboration with the FBI. The following day, moments before the Talladega race and with Wallace in his car, the 39 other drivers and their crews march down pit road as they push his car to the front of the line. When the group reached the front line, Wallace climbs out of his car and began crying. In the days after the race, the investigation uncovers the rope was tied as a noose but wasn’t targeted at Wallace as it had been there since at least the previous year. In 2021, Wallace returns to Talladega to capture his first win.
Kylin Hill prompts change to Mississippi’s state flag
Hill, a star running back for Mississippi State, tweeted “Either change the flag or I won’t be representing this State anymore & I meant that .. I’m tired.” Days earlier, the Southeastern Conference and NCAA announced there would be no postseason or championship events in the state until the Confederate emblem was removed from the state flag. On June 28, the state legislature passed a bill removing the flag and laying the ground for a new design.
WNBA players, WNBPA call for removal of U.S. senator Kelly Loeffler as Atlanta Dream owner
Loeffler, a Republican senator from Georgia, writes a letter to the WNBA commissioner “emphatically opposing” the league’s support of the “Black Lives Matter and “Say Her Name” movement. The Atlanta Dream release their own statement from their players that states “Black lives matter. We are the women of the Atlanta Dream. We are women who support a movement. We are strong and we are fearless. We offer a voice to the voiceless. Our team is united in the Movement for Black Lives. It’s not extreme to demand change after centuries of inequality. This is not a political statement. This is a statement of humanity.” Dream and WNBA players go on to endorse a Loeffler challenger for her Senate seat, Raphael Warnock. Research from the Washington Post indicated the WNBA players’ support for Warnock turned the tides in the Senate race, and Warnock eventually defeats Loeffler in a January runoff to win her seat.
Nearly 200 MLS players protest racial injustice, standing silent for 8 minutes and 46 seconds
At the MLS is Back tournament at Disney World – signaling the return of major professional men’s team sports in the U.S. since the COVID-19 pandemic began – nearly 200 players took the field for an 8-minute, 46-second moment of silence to protest racial injustice. Players wore black T-shirts, black gloves and black facemasks emblazoned with Black Lives Matter. The shirts had varying slogans that included Black And Proud, Silence Is Violence and Black All The Time. The players walked toward midfield, raised their right arms one at a time and held the pose so long that some could be seen stretching fatigued muscles afterward.
Julian Edelman connects with DeSean Jackson after anti-Semitic remarks
On July 7, Jackson posts the words of the widely condemned anti-Semitic and homophobic leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, and a falsely attributed anti-Semitic quote by Adolf Hitler. Patriots receiver Julian Edelman, who is Jewish, then posts an Instagram message to Jackson to coordinate a moment to learn from each other: Edelman will take him to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Jackson will take him to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The two agree to connect in the offseason to “use our experiences to educate one another and grow together.”
NFL’s Washington club announces retirement of racist team name and logo; MLB’s Cleveland club does the same.
Dozens of Native American groups, tribal nations, national tribal organizations, individuals and civil rights group have protested Washington’s 87-year-old team mascot and asked for its removal dating back more than a half-century. Washington owner Dan Snyder said he would never change the logo and team name – a racist slur toward Native Americans – but corporate pressure in 2020 forces him to retire them. Top team sponsor FedEx says it will terminate its stadium naming rights deal, worth an additional $45 million, if Snyder did not change the team name. Other sponsors, including PepsiCo, Nike and Bank of America, make similar demands. Since known as the Washington Football Team, the club on February 2, 2022 officially becomes the Washington Commanders. In 2018, MLB’s Cleveland club, facing similar backlash for its team name and mascot, announces it will retire its “Chief Wahoo” logo for the 2019 season, and in December 2020 says it will change the team’s nickname for the 2022 season. In July 2021, they reveal their new name, the Cleveland Guardians.
University of Texas makes sweeping changes following unified movement from student-athletes
In June, close to 40 student-athletes across seven sports within Texas Athletics wrote a two-page letter to the administration requesting better support for Black athletes and students, to honor former Black athletes at the school, remove statues or the names of buildings with Confederate or racist ties and the retirement of the song “Eyes of Texas.” In July, the school agreed to many of those changes and in November unveiled a new statue of Julius Whittier, the Longhorns’ first Black letterman, but the school did not end the “Eyes of Texas” tradition. Texas’ decision was part of a summer of sweeping changes within college athletics.
Kings, RISE and When We All Vote relaunch “Rally the Vote”
The Sacramento Kings, in partnership with RISE and When We All Vote, re-launched Rally the Vote, a first-of-its-kind nonpartisan coalition of professional sports franchises focused on getting fans to register to vote and participate in elections. Starting with 20 teams in August, the coalition expanded to more than 50 organizations across the NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL, MLL, MLS, WNBA and NWSL by Election Day.
Jason Wright, Danita Johnson, Kim Ng and Dany Garcia break barriers across leagues
The Washington Football Team hired Wright, a former NFL running back, as team president, making him the first Black person to hold that position in the NFL’s 100-year history. Wright was named Sports Business Journal’s “Best Hire of 2020.” In December, Johnson became the first Black woman or man to be hired as an MLS team president when D.C. United hired her as president of business operations. She previously was president and COO of the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks. In November, the Marlins hired Ng as the team’s general manager, making her the first woman to hold that position. Ng was MLB’s senior vice president of baseball operations for the past nine years and the highest-ranking Asian American female baseball executive. In August, Garcia became the first woman to own a professional sports league. Garcia, entertainer Dwayne Johnson and a private equity firm puchased the XFL, and Johnson wrote that Garcia was the “architect” behind the deal.
New York Liberty Host Fourth Annual UNITY Game
In the wake of the murder of Breonna Taylor in 2020, the team hosted “STAY LOUD: Why We #SayHerName” to educate fans about the origins of the #SayHerName campaign, the many Black women victims who have died due to brutal law enforcement encounters, insight behind the disproportionate media coverage, and the role of sports activism and allyship in the pursuit for justice. Players hosted a virtual panel on August 26th and key activations during their fourth annual UNITY game vs. the Dallas Wings on August 27th. Click here to view more about the campaign.
Naomi Osaka wins US Open while honoring Black victims of police brutality or racist violence
Osaka, whose mother is Japanese and father is Haitian, won all seven of her 2020 US Open matches to capture her third grand slam title. As part of each match, she wears a mask with the name of a Black man, woman or child who died from police brutality or violence rooted in racism. The names: Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile and Tamir Rice.
Sarah Thomas becomes first woman to officiate a Super Bowl, and Maia Chaka becomes first Black female NFL official
Since becoming the first permanent official in NFL history in 2015, Thomas has worked full time in the league. In February 2021, she adds another milestone in a career full of glass ceilings being shattered: Thomas is an on-field official for Super Bowl LV . Thomas is also the first woman to officiate a major college football game (2006), the first woman to officiate a bowl game (2009) and the first to officiate in a Big Ten stadium (2011). Chaka also makes history in March 2021. Seven years after she joins the NFL’s officiating development program, Chaka becomes the league’s first Black female official. “I just want [young girls] to know if you have a passion for something and if have a drive for something, don’t let it hold you back just because you think that something may give you some type of limitation,” she said.
Renee Montgomery becomes first former WNBA player to become a part owner and executive of a WNBA franchise
As a member of the Atlanta Dream, Montgomery opts out of the WNBA season in June 2020 to focus on issues of social justice, voter suppression and education, but later in the year starts envisioning a future as a co-owner in the league. That moment comes in early 2021 with her own team, when Kelly Loeffler sells the Dream to an ownership group that includes Montgomery. Dream players and stars from across the WNBA wanted Loeffler removed after she wrote a letter criticizing the league and the Black Lives Matter movement, and Montgomery would write an ensuing letter to Loeffler that would go unanswered. Ultimately, Loeffler decides to sell the team and now Montgomery is part owner, the first former WNBA player to earn that title.
Hideki Matsuyama becomes first Japanese man to win golf major at event honoring Lee Elder, first Black golfer to play in Masters
At the start of the 85th edition of the prestigious Masters tournament, Augusta National Golf Club celebrates Lee Elder as an honorary starter. Elder, who dealt with a spate of racism throughout his career, in 1975 became the first Black golfer to play in the tournament, which began in 1934 but did not allow Black golfers until Elder. (Augusta National did not admit a Black member until 1990 and did not admit women members until 2012.) At the end of the tournament, the Japanese-born Matsuyama finds himself in position to win the Masters. Matsuyama ends the tournament atop the leaderboard, becoming the first Japanese man to win the Masters and the second Asian American to win a golf major (Y.E. Yang in 2009).
Juneteenth recognized as federal holiday
Following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, leagues, teams and athletes across professional sports widley recognize and celebrate Juneteenth — the commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States. Leagues such as the NBA and NFL and teams such as the NHL’s San Jose Sharks and MLS’ Real Salt Lake leverage their platforms to engage in conversations on racism and social justice and provide resources to fans on how they can further their education around issues of race and support the Black community. Momentum builds and one year later, in June 2021, President Joe Biden signs a bill to recognize Juneteenth as a federal holiday.
Athletes from around the world leverage their platforms to protest racism and injustice during the Tokyo Olympics. American shot-putter Raven Saunders and fencer Race Imboden both flash an “X” on the medal stand to represent the “intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet.” Hammer thrower Gwen Berry raised her first to protest racial injustice before her event, while members of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team kneeled before the start of their opening match for the same cause. So too did women’s soccer players from Great Britain, Chile, New Zealand and Japan. Costa Rican gymnast Luciana Alvarado took a knee and put her first in the air after finishing her floor routine. The International Olympic Committee’s longstanding Rule 50 bars athletes from expressing any form of political or social protest before, during or after competition. But leading up to the Tokyo Olympics, the IOC says it will allow athletes to participate in social activism while on the field of play before their events begin, though still preventing athletes from protesting during competition or while on the medal podium. The following day, the World Players Association union announces it will cover legal fees for any athletes who face punishment for such public demonstrations. On the day of opening ceremony in Tokyo, more than 150 athletes, academics and social justice advocates, including RISE, sign an open letter demanding changes to Rule 50 and urging the IOC to “refrain from imposing sanctions on athletes protesting and demonstrating.” The USOPC had decided in December 2020 not to punish its athletes for on-field demonstrations.
NBA investment in HBCUs
The NBA and NBA Foundation announce the creation of the NBA HBCU Fellowship Program, an initiative designed to create greater opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students from Historically Black College and Universities (HCBU). The paid fellowship program with the NBA, WNBA and teams provides career development around the business and operations of the game. In February at the 2022 NBA All-Star Game in Cleveland, there will also be the first-ever NBA HBCU Classic in Cleveland between the Howard University and Morgan State University men’s basketball teams. Additionally, than $1 million will be contributed in support to the HBCU community through the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF), UNCF (United Negro College Fund) and academic institutions, and HBCUs will be showcased during All-Star Weekend through unique content, storytelling and special performances.
Women in the NFL Break Barriers
In December 2021, Washington’s Jennifer King, the team’s assistant running backs coach, becomes the first Black woman to serve as a lead position coach in an NFL game. King, who starts as a coaching intern under coach Ron Rivera, makes history in Week 15 against the Philadelphia Eagles due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the team. In February 2021, Maral Javadifar and Lori Locust become the first female coaches to win the Super Bowl when they help lead the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to victory in Super Bowl LV. In that same game, Sarah Thomas, the league’s first female official, becomes the first woman to officiate a Super Bowl. In March 2021, Maia Chaka becomes the league’s first Black female official seven years after she joins the NFL’s officiating development program. “I just want [young girls] to know if you have a passion for something and if have a drive for something, don’t let it hold you back just because you think that something may give you some type of limitation,” she said.