What kind of sports star do you most admire? Is it the all-conquering, whatever-it-takes champion, or the sports figure, like Jason Collins, who in announcing that he’s gay used his fame for greater good? In a world too-often enamored of the likes of Tiger Woods, Joe Paterno, and Oscar Pistorious, Jackie Robinson stands tall as an athlete who used his fame for good. Jonathan Eig, author of a celebrated biography of Robinson, Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season, picks this exclusive list of sportsmen and women whose causes are as memorable as their achievements.
With the new Jackie Robinson movie, 42, about to hit movie screens, once again we find ourselves thinking about sports heroes who qualify as real heroes. There are not as many of them as one might think. Too often, the men and women who inspire us on the field turn out to be losers, louts, or selfish idiots.
Even athletes of great courage and accomplishment sometimes are undone by personal weakness or bad luck. The legendary boxer Joe Louis, for example, battled drug addiction and mental illness after his career ended. Track star and Olympic hero Jesse Owens was hounded by the IRS for failure to pay income tax, and was reduced to running races against horses to make a living.
But there are still plenty of “True Sports Heroes,” athletes who—through their greatness in character and excellence in performance—most inspired fans and changed the world. If they were symbols of greatness who were perhaps not so great in real life, they don’t make our list. On the other hand, if their loutishness or selfishness was offset by other contributions, they might still make it. These 10 athletes you can admire both on and off their field of play for the causes they championed.
1. Jackie Robinson
Before Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., or Brown v. Board of Education, Robinson showed America that integration could work. By nature, Robinson was an angry fighter, which made him not only a pioneer but a symbol of strength and rebellion, even as he absorbed enormous harassment without ever lashing out. He didn’t merely break baseball’s color line, he smashed it forever and cleared the way for the civil rights movement.
2. Muhammad Ali
When 22-year-old Cassius Clay knocked out Sonny Liston in 1964, everything changed. Clay would become Muhammad Ali and would go on to prove that sports stars could be fighters for social justice and religious tolerance as well as great athletes.
3. Babe Ruth
This is where we can cut slack for loutish behavior, because the Babe’s impact on American culture was gigantic. He changed not only the nature of sport but celebrity, too. He was a kid raised in an orphanage who lived big and inspired those who saw him to swing for the fences. And he remains, for my money, the greatest to ever play the game of baseball.
4. Arthur Ashe
Ashe was the first black tennis player to win championships at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. When he was diagnosed with AIDS, he battled to raise awareness of the disease at a time when few—especially in the world of sport—were doing so.
5. Jim Brown
Brown was brutal and relentless, on the football field and off. And he was savvy enough to leave football early and transform himself into a movie star and outspoken fighter for civil rights.
6. Billie Jean King
Winner of 20 Wimbledon titles and a warrior for equal rights for women, her 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” match against Bobby Riggs turned out to be a letdown (she won, easily). But with 50 million people watching on TV, the stunt was anything but pointless. Billie Jean King, like Jackie Robinson, made her point in the manner American audiences always appreciate: by winning.
RR: A Necessary Spectacle by Selena Roberts.
7. Lou Gehrig
Baseball’s Iron Horse never missed a game—playing through countless broken bones and inspiring Americans through the Great Depression with his determination. Sadly, he was struck down in his prime by the deadly disease that today bears his name. In his retirement speech, he called himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” words that still inspire.
8. Team USA, 1980
A blue-collar hockey team seen as having no chance to win defied all odds to beat the Russians and win Olympic gold in 1980, giving Americans a shot of glory when the Cold War and the Iran hostage crisis had otherwise cast the country in gloom.
9. Babe Didrikson Zaharias
Arguably the greatest American athlete—period—of all time. A track star and golf champion just after World War II, she also went public with her battle against cancer at a time when few celebrities spoke of such things.
10. Roberto Clemente
In a way, Clemente was the Jackie Robinson of the Spanish-speaking world, paving the way for Latinos to become stars. After 18 brilliant seasons, he died in a plane crash while attempting to deliver food and supplies to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua.
Jonathan Eig is the New York Times bestselling author of Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig, Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season, and Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster.
This article was updated April 30, 2013.