If you, too, are going through withdrawal during “Cold Turkey Week”—the seven-day period when there is no NBA, NFL or baseball, and the NCAA tournament hasn’t started—then I’m sure you’re searching for something to quench your thirst for sports. (And if you’re thinking I could just watch hockey, shut the fuck up. I’m black. White people in uniforms chasing something black to whack with a stick is not a sport. It’s called “Wednesday.” It’s called “life.” It’s called “every day since Aug. 20, 1619.”)
Anyway, to fill the hole in your sports soul, we thought we’d rank the wokest athletes of all time. What are our criteria? They are a mixture of activism, impact on society and awareness of their time.
Before we begin, I know many of you are going to wonder why former footballer Jim Brown isn’t on the list. Some might even accuse us of dismissing him because of his visit with Donald Trump, allowing our political leanings get in the way of objectivity. That is not the case. We simply contend that all of Brown’s community activism is negated by the number of women he punched in the face, kicked down stairs and threw off balconies.
See, we did it mathematically.
Here’s the countdown:
Twenty years before Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest, the NBA suspended Denver Nuggets player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf for his refusal to stand for the national anthem. Abdul-Rauf entered the NBA as Chris Jackson—a Steph Curry-like shooting wizard from Louisiana State University, where he averaged more points than his college teammate Shaquille O’Neal. After converting to Islam, Rauf said that he could hear Malcolm X’s words in his head:
You’re not to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it. ... Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. Abdul-Jabbar is considered the greatest college basketball player of all time. When he entered professional basketball (after the winningest basketball career in history), they outlawed the slam dunk. He created the “sky hook,” the most iconic shot in basketball. So why is Abdul-Jabbar not revered as basketball royalty?
Because Abdul-Jabbar was not their Negro.
Lew Alcindor converted to Islam and forced the world to call him by his new Muslim name. Abdul-Jabbar publicly supported Muhammad Ali’s refusal to join the Army. He protested after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. He refused to play in the 1968 Olympics. Abdul-Jabbar is still an activist and uses his history degree to write about causes.
In 2015, in a protest over the treatment of black students by the administration and the university, 32 black players on the University of Missouri’s football team refused to play or practice until the school’s president resigned. The Missouri football team knew that they were the main moneymakers for an athletic department that brings in $83 million in annual revenue in the Southeastern Conference—the biggest football conference in the world.
President Tom Wolfe resigned three days later.
Carlos Delgado, then with the Toronto Blue Jays, was playing in New York after 9/11, while we are at war with Iraq, and refused to take part when everyone stood during the seventh-inning stretch to sing “God Bless America.”
Delgado, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico and remembered the stories of how the Puerto Rican island of Vieques was used as a bomb-testing ground, refused to support the Iraq War, explaining:
It’s a very terrible thing that happened on Sept. 11. It’s [also] a terrible thing that happened in Afghanistan and Iraq. I just feel so sad for the families that lost relatives and loved ones in the war. But I think it’s the stupidest war ever.
When the Syracuse University football team took the field on Sept. 26, 1970, nine of its most talented players (who mistakenly became known as the Syracuse Eight)—all black—were noticeably absent. They were boycotting the game because they were boycotting until their school addressed the institutional racism against black players. They didn’t go to spring practices and refused to sign an oath of loyalty to the college. After the game, a riot broke out, which prompted a thorough investigation that found “racism in the Syracuse University Athletic Department is real, chronic, largely unintentional, and sustained and complicated unwittingly by many modes of behavior common in American athletics and long-standing at Syracuse University.”
When Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem, people wondered why. There were many who thought it was unpatriotic and disrespectful. Some people even questioned whether his protest substantively changed anything. Whatever your opinion, one thing can’t be disputed:
For weeks, whenever anyone talked about the biggest sport in America—on TV, radio sports talk shows, and in places where no one usually discussed politics or controversial topics—they were forced to talk about Black Lives Matter. Kaepernick didn’t solve any single issue, but he put the issues of police brutality and inequality on the biggest stage in the world, where they couldn’t be ignored.
With the passage of time, sometimes history shines a softer light on certain incidents. It is easy to view John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s revolutionary act of raising black power fists on the Olympic podium benignly, forgetting how radical it was at the time. The black power movement was subversive, unacceptable and scary to white America in 1968. It symbolized the scary Black Panthers, who had shoot-outs with cops. It represented the angry people who rioted after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
And it was in front of the world.
Michael Jordan will never have 11 championships. LeBron James will never have three NCAA championships. Bill Russell does. He won three college titles on the first team to put three black starters on the floor. He is credited with making basketball an airborne game, but what he did off the court was even greater.
Russell was onstage at the March on Washington. When Medgar Evers was killed, Russell went down to Mississippi, opened a playground and had the first integrated basketball camp, all while the Ku Klux Klan closely followed. He rushed to Muhammad Ali’s side when he decided to risk his career to protest the Vietnam War. He refused to play in cities where they wouldn’t treat him equally.
Oh, yeah—and he had to live in Boston.
Before Jackie Robinson broke the color line in America’s pastime ...
Before he endured death threats with grace and civility ...
Long before he pressed three presidents on civil rights laws and stood alongside MLK and changed the color of all sports in America, Robinson was fighting. He was a Black Panther before Eldridge Cleaver or Fred Hampton. (Robinson served as a second lieutenant assigned to the 71st Tank Battalion, known as the “Black Panthers.”) While he was in the Army, he refused to move to the back of the bus before Rosa Parks and was promptly arrested and court-martialed for it. Robinson was acquitted on all charges.
Robinson fought for equality long before he was a Brooklyn Dodger, and long after.
Not only is Muhammad Ali the wokest athlete ever; I believe that he is the greatest black man who ever lived. Everyone on this list risked his career for what he thought was right, but Muhammad Ali gave his. Ali took millions of dollars, his status as the most famous man in the world, his career, everything he worked for his entire life—his very freedom—pushed it across the table and said, “Here, you can have it.”
That is a man.
And he could fight like a motherfucker.
He might be dead and gone, but more than any other athlete who ever lived, Muhammad Ali stayed woke.