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10 Iconic Black Athletes Who Changed the Game

From Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson to Serena Williams and Simone Biles, these Black sports icons changed the game and paved the way.

Daniel Fernandez

THUMB ATHLETES@2x

While there are countless accomplished and talented Black athletes, there are some Black sports stars who changed the way their sports were played forever! Learn about their accomplishments, as well as the hardships they overcame — and the impact these influential changemakers had on the lives of others.

Do a couple of stretches, put on your headbands, and let’s get to know these athletes!

1. Joe Louis

Who would have thought that the seventh of eight children born in a shack outside of Lafayette, Alabama would grow up to be one of the greatest boxers of all time? Joseph Louis’ mother wanted to keep him out of trouble and gave him money to take violin lessons. Instead, he used that money to pay for boxing lessons and when he started fighting as a boxer, he gave the name “Joe Louis” so his mother wouldn’t find out!  From the moment Joe stepped into the ring, he made history.

Here are some of Joe Louis’ greatest accomplishments in and out of the ring:

  • Joe Louis was the longest-reigning World Heavyweight Champion in boxing history from 1937 to 1949!

  • He won 20 out of 20 professional boxing matches.

  • He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1982.

  • He became the first boxer to be featured on a U.S. postage stamp in 1993!

Kids can celebrate Joe Lewis and all of his amazing accomplishments by learning some boxing basics!

2. Serena Williams

One of the most exemplary tennis players and athletes of all time, Serena Williams picked up her first tennis racket when she was just four years old and would go on to be coached by her father. As a young player at tournaments, people would make racist and disparaging remarks towards Serena, but that didn’t stop her. Not. One. Bit.

“Tennis court domination” was the name of the game for Serena as you can see by just a few of her major accomplishments on and off the tennis court:

  • Serena Williams won a total of 73 singles titles and 23 doubles titles as well as Olympic gold medals at the Sydney, Beijing, and London Olympics.

  • She won 39 Grand Slam titles in total. (23 in singles, 14 in women’s doubles, and two in mixed doubles.)

  • The term “Serena Slam” — where a player is reigning champion of all the major tournaments at the same time — was coined in her honor.

  • She owns her own clothing line and has donated more than $600 million to charity!

Kids can celebrate Serena Williams and all of her amazing accomplishments by trying to replicate some of her wild trick shots!

3. LeBron James

Affectionately known as “King James” and “The Chosen One” in the NBA, LeBron James is frequently referred to as the greatest basketball player of all time. Born to a single mother in Akron, Ohio, LeBron was introduced to basketball when he was nine years old and quickly became a local and then national phenom. He was drafted into the NBA right out of high school and since then has never looked back.

Here are some of LeBron’s most notable accomplishments on and off the basketball court:

  • LeBron James has won four NBA Most Valuable Player awards, four NBA championships, four NBA Finals MVP awards, and two Olympic gold medals.

  • He received the Jackie Robinson Award from the NAACP for his work in social justice.

  • He started the LeBron James Family Foundation and helped open a school, housing complex, and community center in his hometown.

  • He’s also worked as an actor, music producer, owns his own production company, and is an outspoken advocate for civil rights.

Kids can celebrate Lebron James and all of his amazing accomplishments by learning his signature spin move from the man himself!

4. Simone Biles

Simone Biles was only six years old when she went on a school trip to the local gymnastics center where a coach noticed how good she was at imitating the other gymnasts. Talk about a life-changing field trip! (Or maybe just destiny.) Fast-forward 18 years into the future (yes, she’s only 24 years old), and Simone is now considered to be the greatest gymnast of all time.

Since beginning to compete, Simone has flipped, tumbled, and balanced her way through a laundry list of groundbreaking accomplishments on the mat:

  • Simone won the most medals in gymnastics history with 25 world medals (19 gold, three silver, three bronze).

  • She is a five-time all-around gymnastics world champion and a member of the gold medal-winning American teams at the 2014, 2015, 2018, and 2019 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships.

  • She’s the first American female gymnast to win a world medal in every gymnastics event of the World Championships and Olympic Games.

  • Simone is also is a three-time World Championships silver medalist and a three-time World Championships bronze medalist.

Kids can celebrate Simone Biles and all of her amazing accomplishments by learning how to do a cartwheel!

5. Cam Newton

Currently the quarterback of the Carolina Panthers, Cam Newton is one of the top players in the NFL. A talented athlete from a young age, Cam played baseball and basketball before committing himself to football, later winning the Heisman trophy during his college years. Cam went on to be become the #1 draft pick in the NFL and is known for his community outreach, fashion sense, hilarious touchdown dances, and his charm on and off the field.

Here are some of Cam’s biggest feats:

  • Cam Newton has the most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in NFL history!

  • He was the first person in NFL history to be awarded the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award (2015) and Rookie of the Year award (2011).

  • He is a three-time Pro Bowl player (2011, 2013, and 2015).

  • He started the Cam Newton Foundation, which is a non-profit foundation aimed at community outreach, mentoring, donating to schools, and providing education on diversity.

  • He won the Walter Payton Man of the Year Charity Award (2019) for the contributions he’s made through his charity work to various communities in North Carolina!

Kids can celebrate Cam Newton and all of his amazing accomplishments by coming up with their own touchdown dance!

6. Laila Ali

The daughter of world-renowned boxing legend Muhammad Ali, Laila Ali, definitely has a big pair of shoes to fill. Her father discouraged her from pursuing a career as a boxer because he thought it was too dangerous, but Laila was committed to being the best boxer she could be.

Lailia’s desire to become the best never wavered as you can see by her list of accomplishments in and out of the boxing ring:

  • Laila Ali retired from boxing undefeated after competing from 1999 to 2007.

  • During her career, she held the WBC, WIBA, IWBF, and IBA female super middleweight titles, and the IWBF light heavyweight title.

  • She has worked as a TV host and actor, having appeared in shows like American Gladiator, The Masked Singer, Scooby-Doo, and Guess Who?

  • She wrote her own book, Reach! Finding Strength, Spirit, and Personal Power, which is geared towards inspiring young people.

Kids can celebrate Laila Ali and all of her amazing accomplishments by exercising along with her!

7. Naomi Osaka

Born in Japan to a Haitian father and a Japanese mother, Naomi Osaka began playing tennis at the age of three and is ranked as one of the top tennis players in the world at only 24 years old! 

As her skills continue to grow, Naomi Osaka’s accomplishments on and off the court continue to impress.

Here are just a few:

  • Naomi Osaka became the first Grand Slam winner in Japan’s history (2018) and has won three Grand Slams in total.

  • She was named one of Sports Illustrated’s Sportspersons of the Year (2020) for raising awareness and showing support for the Black Lives Matter movement by wearing BLM masks to her matches!

  • She was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2019 and 2020.

  • Her serve is so powerful it can reach speeds up to 125 miles per hour!

Kids can celebrate Naomi Osaka by watching her favorite tennis movies along with her!

8. Usain Bolt

It’s either gotta be fate or a pretty awesome coincidence that the last name of the fastest man alive just so happens to be “Bolt.” Born in Jamaica, Usain Bolt won his first medal as a sprinter at age 14, while he was still in high school.

Though Usain is now retired, he still goes by the name “Lightning Bolt” and is considered to be the greatest sprinter in the world. He holds his own fair share of world records, but don’t take my word for it!

Here are some of Usain’s accomplishments on and off the track:

  • Usain Bolt holds 19 world records, most notably the world record time for the 100-meter dash with a time of 9.58 seconds. That’s an average speed of almost 24 miles per hour!

  • He is an eight-time Olympic gold medallist, and is a world record holder in the 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash, and four-person 100-meter relay and is an 11-time world champion.

  • He published his own memoir The Fastest Man Alive: The True Story of Usain Bolt in 2021.

  • He co-founded his own electric scooter company called Bolt Mobility and is also a producer of dancehall music.

Kids can celebrate Usain Bolt by trying to see how far they can run in 9.58 seconds!

9. Colin Kaepernick

Colin Kaepernick is a professional football player and is one of the few sports stars on this list whose achievements off the field may outnumber those on the field, and for good reason.

After playing football throughout high school and college, Colin Kaepernick joined the NFL in 2011 where he improved as a player season after season. During the 2016 season, he began using his platform to call attention to important issues like police brutality and racial injustice occurring in America. At the start of every football game Colin peacefully protested in the pursuit of social justice by kneeling during the national anthem.

Since that season, Colin Kaepernick hasn’t played in the NFL, but has made a profound impact off the football field:

  • Colin Kaepernick received the Ambassador of Conscience Award by Amnesty International (2018) and the Muhammad Ali Legacy Award from Sports Illustrated (2017).

  • He founded the “Know Your Rights Camp,” an organization geared towards helping disadvantaged youth learn about legal rights, American history, and self-empowerment.

  • He’s donated over $1 million to various organizations committed to racial equity in America.

Aside from being a fantastic athlete, Colin Kaepernick’s commitment to the pursuit of social justice in America is what truly sets him apart. Your family can celebrate Colin by researching his Know Your Rights Camp or finding a cause you care about and donating to it!

10. Jackie Robinson

No list of iconic Black sports stars would be complete without including Mr. Number 42 himself, Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robison not only broke baseball’s “color line” and became the first African American to play the sport, but his amazing accomplishments changed the way Black athletes were viewed in America.

Jackie Robinson’s name has become synonymous with overcoming adversity and perseverance. He changed baseball and American culture forever by the example he set on and off the baseball diamond.

Here are some of his accomplishments:

  • Jackie Robinson was named the National League Rookie of the Year (1947), awarded Most Valuable Player in the league (1949), and he led the Brookly Dodgers to six league championships and one World Series victory.

  • He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962 and his number, 42, was retired throughout all of baseball.

  • He became the Vice President of the Chock Full O’Nuts company in 1957 — becoming the first Black vice president of a major American corporation!

  • He started the Jackie Robinson Construction Company to build housing for low-income families. 

  • He inspired civil rights activists with his use of nonviolence and contributed to the start of the civil rights movement.

Kids can celebrate Jackie Robinson by marking your family calendar for April 15, Jackie Robinson Day, and getting in a few practice swings!

Read About More Black Changemakers Who Made the World a Better Place!

Updated January 2022