Sports and popular culture in America are inescapably intertwined. As a result, our sports heroes are also our cultural icons. Not only did these sports figures greatly impact their sport but they also played a greater role, one outside their game. Each of these icons permanently altered our society and culture in ways that will be felt forever.
Any list of influential sports figures starts with Jackie Robinson. The impact of breaking the color barrier can not be overstated. The world of sports in America is a much, much better place because of #42. During a time of racial tension in our country Robinson stoically and gracefully navigated the seemingly insurmountable challenge of being the face of integration in sports.
In the landscape of American sports, basketball came in a distant third behind baseball and football until Michael Jordan hit the scene. MJ elevated the game in a way that no other single player has... ever. Not only was MJ the first athlete as corporate brand and marketing empire but he also has one of the great American comebacks of all time. After two years away from basketball to pursue baseball, Jordan won more championships. Amazing.
The only reason that Americans even care about the Tour de France is because of Lance Armstrong. Seven consecutive victories in the most grueling sporting event in the world is simply astounding. To have done it after beating cancer is phenomenal. Lance popularized cycling in the US and has given a face to finding a cure for cancer. His impact on cycling and our culture will be recognized for many years to come.
Wayne Gretzy changed the way hockey is played. There is a reason he's referred to as "The great One". Not only is he the pride of Canada but he managed to popularize hockey in Los Angeles, a mighty accomplishment aside from his on ice accomplishments.
Not only was Gretzky one of the greatest hockey players ever but he managed to enter pop culture like Joe Dimaggio, by marrying a Hollywood actress. The Great One will always be considered above all others when we think about hockey icons.
Mohammed Ali will always be the single greatest boxing icon ever. His charisma, charm and skills were unmatched by any boxer before or since. But beyond the ring Ali imprinted modern American culture like no other athlete, in any sport. He was a conscientious objector in Vietnam and subsequently temporarily lost his boxing license for four years. But he put a famous face to the anti-war movement as well as put the Nation of Islam in the spotlight.
Since his boxing career, Ali has been a global ambassador. As one of the most recognized people in the world, Ali has transcended sport and become a champion for peace.
In our culture, iconic athletes become more than just athletes they rise above the game and become influential sports figures.
select one here...