Athletes as Icons
Athletes become iconic by possessing a combination of exceptional talent, charisma, and the ability to inspire and motivate people. NSM acknowledges a select few iconic athletes — evaluating their origins, as well as the contributions to their respective sports and communities at large.
by Adam Slocum, Kristin Latimer, Eli Goldstein
February 8th, 2023
"Iconic Athletes" by Adam Port
Athletes become iconic by possessing a combination of exceptional talent, charisma, and the ability to inspire and motivate people. Of course, their athletic track record needs to stand out as a remarkable outlier from the rest, but they also need to be able to capture the public’s imagination and attention with their winning personality as well.
Iconic athletes represent more than just their sport and their distinctive style of play; they also should be seen as role models for future generations. That means they have an impact not only on the way their sport is played but also on how their admirers emulate and choose to conduct their own lives, creating a legacy long after their career as an athlete has ended.
“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”
— Jackie Robinson
Athletes, especially iconic athletes, are respected and admired by millions of people. Their influence has grown even more powerful with the advent of social media. In this current age of instant access to stars who now possess an unfiltered platform to share their views, iconic athletes are also social influencers.
For example, LeBron James’ influence on the court extends off the court to his 100+ million social media followers who have direct access to his thoughts and preferences throughout all aspects of his lifestyle. In this day and age, a third aspect of an iconic athlete’s influence is his or her net worth. As multi-millionaires (and for someone like LeBron, billionaires), iconic athletes have the capability to inspire and influence with their on-court talent, their social media platforms, and through how they choose to allocate their substantial financial resources.
Fortunately, many of these icons choose to give back to their communities, such as through the philanthropic outreach of the LeBron James Family Foundation and many other charities and foundations established and supported by iconic athletes.
ATHLETES WHO TRIUMPHED IN THE FACE OF ADVERSITY
Stories of athletes who overcame adversity in childhood on their way to achieving super stardom and unfathomable wealth are particularly compelling: the classic rags-to-riches American success story. Even more compelling is that from their humble beginnings they intuitively knew that by virtue of their good fortune, achieving success meant they had to give back and help others less fortunate. One of the greatest legends in American sports history is Babe Ruth. From age 7, George Herman Ruth Jr., was primarily raised in a Catholic orphanage and reformatory school, called St. Mary’s Industrial School for Orphans, Delinquent, Incorrigible and Wayward Boys. His parents were from very modest means and away from home working long hours operating a tavern in a rough neighborhood along the docks of Baltimore. At a young age, they realized their unruly eldest son was not capable of behaving himself, so the school not only became his new home, but was also eventually granted legal custody over the young boy.
He learned the game of baseball there and excelled as both a pitcher and hitter. Originally signed at age 19 by the Baltimore Orioles (a farm team of the Boston Red Sox at that time), Ruth’s Major League career started in 1914 with Boston, where he was primarily used as a starting pitcher. Due to his limited plate appearances (only batting while he was pitching), he had only amassed a total of 9 home runs over his first four seasons. Nevertheless, during that time, he helped the Red Sox win three World Series championships (1915, 1916, 1918), including 29⅔ scoreless World Series innings pitched, a record that lasted 43 years.
“I swing big, with everything I’ve got. I hit big or I miss big.
I like to live as big as I can.”
– Babe Ruth
Nevertheless, there was no denying his powerful bat. Switching to the outfield, 705 more home runs would follow over the next 18 seasons, an average of just under 40 per year. Most of those home runs were not with the Red Sox, however. In 1920, he was sold to the Yankees for a very large sum at the time, $125,000 and an additional $300,000 in loans, which Red Sox owner Harry Frazee needed to finance his Broadway plays. The Curse of the Bambino ensued as Boston would go 86 years without another World Series title. Babe’s difficult childhood, which inevitably engendered his extreme compassion for children, combined with his larger-than-life personality made him a fan favorite, especially among kids. As he said to one little boy in the hospital: “To my sick little pal. I will try to knock you another homer, maybe two today.”
Before passing away in 1948, he created the Babe Ruth Foundation to provide financial support to underprivileged children. When he died, most of his money went to this foundation. Undoubtedly, Babe Ruth’s two biggest passions in life were the game of baseball and the happiness of children.
ATHLETES AS POSITIVE ROLE MODELS
Simone Biles is a world-renowned gymnast for Team USA, an accomplishment that’s even more remarkable based on where she started. Her father was an absentee dad and Shannon Biles, Simone's mother, was unable to care for her four children, so they were all sent to foster care at a very young age. However, when Simone’s maternal grandfather, Ronald Biles, discovered that his grandchildren were in foster care, he made the decision to take them all in. Simone was 3 at the time. Simone’s step-uncle Adam Biles recalled the adjustment: "They moved in the year that my brother and I were about to leave high school, and my parents were going to be empty-nesters, and along come four kids," he said. "It was crazy. It was hectic." Deemed unfit due to drug addiction, the parental rights of Shannon Biles and Simone’s biological father were officially terminated. Her grandfather and his wife decided to legally adopt Simone and her siblings.
Although Biles is still in touch with her biological mother, she views her adopted mother and father as her parents. “When we came down, it was automatically, 'OK, you're my mom, and you're my dad.' There was never a question about it." Thanks to the immense amount of support provided by her adopted family, Simone was able to blossom into one of the best all-around gymnasts ever to compete.
One of her childhood coaches, upon seeing Simone for the first time, noted: "She was waiting for her turn on bars, and she could not stand still. I could see how energetic she was. It was just the kinetic energy from her body, and it was, wow, this kid is something. Not normal." Biles’ natural talent and fierce desire to improve led to 34 Olympic, World Championship, and Pacific Rim medals, including 4 golds at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Biles’ ability to recover from some rather traumatic beginnings in her childhood continue to be an inspiration for any aspiring athlete, especially those in a similar situation in which biological parents are not present from a very young age.
After experiencing some mental health setbacks, which came to the forefront at the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo when her mind and body felt a disconnect while in the air (a phenomenon called the “twisties”), Simone has emerged as a prominent advocate to help normalize the topic of mental health. Due to her own experiences with the child welfare system, she also is passionate about helping and encouraging children in foster care through her partnership with the charitable organization, Mattress Firm Foster Kids. In so many ways, and at such a young age, she has taken on the responsibility as a role model to so many women and girls who admire her not only for her incredible athletic ability, but also her grace and character.
Ronald Martinez / Getty Images
FROM ATHLETE TO ICON
LeBron “King” James is a generational talent who has transcended his sport to become a cultural icon and business mogul. The only player to win the NBA Finals MVP with three different teams, LeBron wins wherever he goes. However, before being considered for the title of “greatest baller of all time”, LeBron’s formative years in Akron, Ohio were defined by instability, including witnessing “drugs and killings.”
His mother Gloria gave birth to LeBron out of wedlock when she was only 16. The pair never had stable housing—moving six times in one year. The uncertainty in LeBron’s home life made it difficult to have consistent school attendance; when he was eight LeBron missed 100 out of 162 school days. Gloria and LeBron had no extended family to support them; his grandmother and great-grandmother both passed away within a year of LeBron’s birth. LeBron’s story changed when his youth football coach let the family move in with him, providing food and shelter and introducing LeBron to basketball for the first time.
LEBRON PASSES KAREEM IN ALL-TIME SCORING
The rest is history. LeBron is now the all-time leading scorer in NBA history, having eclipsed Kareem’s record. He’s also the second NBA player alongside Michael Jordan to become a billionaire, the only difference being that LeBron accomplished the feat during his illustrious playing career.
“I don’t see records as personal accomplishments, but more as human achievements. If one person can do something that’s never been done, that means we all have a shot at doing it. It’s a source of hope and inspiration...We all win when a record is broken.” – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
LeBron hasn’t forgotten the community that raised him. After years of organizing one-off charitable events in Akron, Ohio, the LeBron James Family Foundation opened the I Promise school for at-risk kids in 2018. Students’ families have access to a food bank, family and career services, transitional housing, and full-ride scholarships when their kids reach college age. Though LeBron makes his living through basketball, he believes his priority is his charitable work. Even after passing Kareem and reaching the absolute pinnacle of his sport, he’d likely say his most important stats are the $100 million he has donated to charity and the 2,300 at-risk students served so far through his I Promise educational programs and college scholarships.
National Sports Museum focuses on the mission of advancing social justice, empowering diversity, equity, and inclusion, inspiring personal excellence, and uniting us as a nation. NSM is collaborating with leading charitable organizations, such as Companions in Courage, founded by iconic hockey player, Pat Lafontaine, which builds interactive rooms in children’s hospitals to ensure that no child in the fight for life or health ever has to go through it alone, and Every Kid Sports, backed by softball icon, Jessica Mendoza, which pays registration fees for children from income-restricted families to ensure every kid has a chance to play youth sports.
With a total of nine leading non-profit co-founders, NSM will be a central gathering place and welcoming environment for the American and global sports community to come together to address a multitude of social and cultural issues, all centered around sports as a unifying force.
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