By Demetrius Dillard
Special to the AFRO
In general terms, sports heavily influences various world cultures to the same extent that music, entertainment, economics, politics and religion does.
When the sports industry is estimated to be worth more than $620 billion worldwide, one should expect it to have a good deal of societal influence.
History has shown that even the reputation of a country, culture or region may often rely heavily on the success of its sports teams and leagues. For instance, consider Ancient Greece. Many modern track and field events and combat sports are said to have origins there. Greece is also the birthplace of the internationally acclaimed Olympic Games.
The same could be said about the United States, in modern terms at least. Athletes from all over the world migrate to America to compete for highly coveted roster spots in the MLB, NBA and MLS in particular.
Two of the three highest revenue professional sports leagues in the world (NFL – estimated $16 billion; and NBA – estimated $8 billion) are unquestionably dominated by Black athletes. Black people account for 70 percent of NFL players and 81 percent of NBA players, and 8 percent of MLB players according to the Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears and USA Today.
Picture this scenario: sports with no Black athletes, coaches or otherwise. Imagine how egregiously revenue and ratings would plummet.
Not only have they consistently had to cope with the harsh realities of White supremacy in sports down through the Jim Crow and civil rights eras, but Black athletes have given sports fans and enthusiasts the most exhilarating highlights known to mankind. Jim Brown of the 1950s and 60s, Muhammad Ali of the 1960s and 70s, and Michael Jordan of the 1980s and 90s produce some of the most iconic sports moments in modern history.
Ever since the days of the great Jack Johnson (heavyweight boxer), Jesse Owens (track athlete), Jackie Robinson (baseball player) and the world-renowned Harlem Globetrotters, Black athletes have limitlessly impacted the world of sports.
Had it not been for Sugar Ray Robinson or Joe Louis, there would be no Floyd Mayweather; if there were no Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton or Bill Russell, there would be no LeBron James or Kobe Bryant; without Althea Gibson, there would be no Serena Williams, and so forth.
Black athletes have repeatedly found ways to emerge, even in sports in which they aren’t the demographic majority. Take tennis, golf and gymnastics for instance — three predominantly White sports. But who are the most recognizable names in these sports? None other than Serena Williams, Tiger Woods and Simone Biles, respectively.
Fast forward to 2021, and four of the 10 highest-paid athletes of all time are Black: Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Floyd Mayweather and LeBron James. Jordan, whose earnings exceed $2.6 billion, ranks No. 1 as the highest paid athlete of any race, according to Sportico.
Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson are a few of the transcendent athletes who worked their way into the executive ranks, where their impact can be even more meaningful than their days on the court.
Jordan, widely considered the greatest NBA player of all time, starred on the Chicago Bulls where he led the franchise to six NBA titles. He now serves as the owner of the Charlotte Hornets.
Similarly, Johnson, known for his dazzling plays as a Los Angeles Lakers star, served in various executive capacities for the team and now is a part owner of the LA Dodgers. The 62-year-old has risen to be one of the most successful Black entrepreneurs in the nation.
Major networks, such as ESPN, CBS, Fox Sports, NBC and others wouldn’t have been able to establish and sustain such high ratings without the ongoing influence of the Black athlete.
Speaking of which, a Black man is the face of the most prominent sports network in the world in ESPN. Stephen A. Smith, also an HBCU graduate, has established himself as a fixture on the well-known morning show “First Take.” His spirited perspectives and vibrant personality can be attributed to the reason Smith is arguably the most noticeable face in sports commentary.
After signing a five-year contract with the network worth $8 million per year in November 2019, Smith officially became the highest-paid ESPN personality, surpassing Mike Greenberg. His salary has since inflated to $10 million, according to multiple reports.
Michael Wilbon, a co-host of ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption,” is another staple in the network. Likewise, former NFL tight end and Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe co-stars Fox Sports 1’s debate show “Skip and Shannon: Undisputed,” where his well-informed ideas — along with a number of humorous skits — have driven the show’s ratings for the five years it’s been on the air.
Not to mention, award-winning football sportscaster James Brown. The Washington, D.C., native is among the most prominent NFL talk show hosts for nearly three decades, appearing on several pregame programs on the NFL Network, CBS and Fox Sports.
Smith, Wilbon, Sharpe, Brown and the late Stuart Scott are just a few examples of the considerable impact Black people have had in sports aside from the playing field and the court.
Multiple Black sports figures, including former NBA player Etan Thomas, former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and WNBA legend Maya Moore used their platforms to advance social advocacy amid America’s racial reckoning.
In the face of profound adversity, racism and discrimation, Black people have managed to change the course of the world through sports, and will continue to do so despite the ongoing obstacles they confront.
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