Michael Sam and 20 Athletes Who Have Revolutionized the Sports World

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Michael Sam Becomes NFL Pioneer By Coming Out as Gay

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When former Missouri Tigers player and NFL Draft prospect Michael Sam announced to the public that he is gay on Sunday night, there were a number of people who were surprised, and an even greater numer who saw the moment as one that will go down in history. This is because there has never before been an openly gay athlete in any of the so-called big four American sports leagues, and Sam is an undoubted lock to change that when the 2014 NFL season begins.

Of course, bringing on a change like this will be something that taxes Sam, but after watching him on the field in 2013, actually playing football should not be an issue. Over the last season, the defensive end compiled 11.5 sacks, 19 tackles for a loss, and was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year. He genuinely looks like a future star at the next level.

To say that the man has a future on the football field would be an understatement, although things could surely get tough off of it. There will certainly be a number of people who disagree with Sam's sexual orientation, and they will let him know what they are thinking loud and clear on a daily basis. Dealing with these off-field antics will likely be much tougher than actually being a success on the field, and will ultimately result in Sam being a pioneer for the LGBT community.

Of course, Sam is not the first athlete to deal with being a pioneer for a certain community in the sporting world. Keeping this in mind, I have formed a list of 20 athletes who have revolutionized sports throughout history.

Enjoy!

Tyler Leli is a Washington Capitals writer for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter, "Like" him on Facebook or join his network on Google.

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20. Billie Jean King

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Billie Jean King is one of the best women's tennis players ever, winning 12 Grand Slam titles during an illustrious career. What truly made King a sporting pioneer though was her 1973 Battle of the Sexes match against former men's tennis star Bobby Riggs, which she won in three consecutive sets. This match was watched by over 50 million people around the world, and was the first real display on a national stage that women can, and should be allowed to play sports.

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19. Jason Collins

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Jason Collins came out as a gay man in April of 2013, in turn kickstarting the conversation of gay athletes in professional sports. Unfortunately Collins has not been signed by an NBA team since coming out, but he did talk to Michael Sam before he came out, and his decision to come out has sped up the process of acceptance of gay athletes in sports.

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18. Jacques Plante

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Jacques Plante contributed to changing the safety of NHL goaltenders with his decision to consistently start using a mask back in 1959. While Plante initially only used a plastic mask that covered his face, he set the trend of hockey goalies protecting themselves with head protection, and in turn made the game much safer for everyone involved.

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17. Jesse Owens

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Jesse Owens began the trend of sending a civil rights message through sport, as he went over to Berlin and won four gold medals during the 1936 Olympic Games. This output came as Adolf Hitler was in power in Germany, and also at a time when the United States was largely segregated, meaning that Owens output showed people on both sides of the world that African-Americans were equal to other races.

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16. Curt Flood

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Curt Flood was one of the best center fielders in all of baseball during his 15 season career, but his biggest impact came off the field. After the St. Louis Cardinals attempted to force Flood to move to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1969, which was legal at the time under the reserve clause that tied players to their clubs for life. Flood challenged this clause in court, ultimately winning in the Supreme Court, which in turn established free agency in baseball.

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15. Ichiro

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Back in 2001 Ichiro became the first Japanese position player to play in MLB, and had the hopes of an entire country on his shoulders while doing so. Despite many people stateside doubting Ichiro, he has gone on to have a Hall of Fame career and has shown the world that Japanese baseball players can play at the highest level.

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14. Gareth Thomas

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Rugby superstar Gareth Thomas came out as gay in 2009 after living a lie for a long time, but he has since been a hero for the LGBT. Thomas has killed all misconceptions that gays can not play sports or are girly, as he had a dominant career with Wales and numerous club teams in one of the most physical sports in the world. While this did not play big in the U.S., it was a huge deal for sports in the UK and South Africa, where rugby is huge.

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13. Roberto Clemente

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Roberto Clemente dealt with a massive amount of abuse throughout his MLB career, as his mix of Latino and African heritage made him a target for hatred. Clemente seemed to brush this off though, compiling 3000 career hits on the way to a Hall of Fame career and also becoming a renowned humanitarian. Ultimately Clemente would die attempting to help others, as he was on a plane going to help Nicaragua earthquake victims that crashed, but he left behind a love to help others that has spread throughout professional sports.

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12. Ann Meyers

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Ann Meyers was the first woman to receive a full scholarship to a Division 1 institution when she signed with UCLA back in 1976. Meyers would go on to become such a big star in college that she received a three day tryout with the Indiana Pacers, although she ultimately didn't make the team. Meyers then decided play professional basketball with women, but her biggest achievement was progressing women receiving scholarships and that they could play with the boys.

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11. Robbie Rogers

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Robbie Rogers became the first openly gay MLS player in May of 2013 when he signed with the L.A. Galaxy following a three-month retirement. Rogers was fortunate enough to return to play in his hometown, and has since become a major proponent of athletes coming out. In fact, it could be said that Rogers opened the floodgates for all other gay American athletes who will come out in the future.

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10. Doug Williams

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Doug Williams played for nine years in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Washington Redskins, throwing for 100 touchdowns and 16,998 passing yards. While these stats weren't special, Williams changed football forever by becoming the first African-American quarterback to ever win the Super Bowl back in 1993. This win showed the world that African-Americans could be winning quarterbacks in the NFL, opening the gates for the likes of Russell Wilson, Michael Vick and Robert Griffin III to succeed in the league today.

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9. Roger Bannister

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Roger Bannister became the first man to run a sub four minute mile back in 1954, in turn completing an accomplishment that mankind had been attempting for hundreds of years. Doing this helped to spur on the progressing of track and field, and set a bar that was actually passed rather quickly.

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8. Magic Johnson

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Magic Johnson's Hall-of-Fame basketball career certainly makes him an athlete to remember, but his contributions after telling the world in 1991 that he has AIDS changed the sporting world forever. After the revelation, Johnson helped lead the 1992 Dream Team to a gold medal, won the 1992 All-Star Game MVP, retired, then came back and played 32 games with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1995-96. What's most remarkable is that Johnson did this all while showing the world that AIDS infects more than homosexuals and that you can be a great athlete with a debilitating disease.

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7. Brandi Chastain

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When Brandi Chastain fired the ball past Chinese goalkeeper Gao Hong back in 1999, she clinched more than just the Women's World Cup for the U.S. What she also did was send a packed Rose Bowl into delirium, and pushed women's soccer to the top of the totem pole for female youth sports in America. The U.S. is now a powerhouse on the world women's soccer scene, which can be tied directly back to Chastain clinching the World Cup and whipping her shirt around in the air.

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6. Yao Ming

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Yao Ming took the sporting world by storm back in 2002 when the Houston Rockets drafted him no. 1 overall in the NBA Draft, a move that many pundits thought would fail. Yao would go on to be the first Chinese star in the NBA, become an eight time All-Star as he averaged 19 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game over parts of eight seasons. The 7-foot-6 star opened the walls of China to basketball, and the NBA is now a globally-recognized league in large part because of Yao's success.

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5. Muhammad Ali

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There are few athletes who match up to the stardom that Muhammad Ali possessed during his boxing career. Ali was more than just a great athlete though, as his anti-war beliefs, larger-than-life persona and outspoken ways made him a sportsman that was far ahead of his time.

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4. Danica Patrick

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Danica Patrick has paved the way for women in both IndyCar and NASCAR, and continues to do so today. Over a six-year stint in IndyCar, she became the only woman to win a race, and her third-place finish in the 2009 Indy 500 ranks as the highest finish ever by a woman. Since moving into NASCAR in 2012, she became the became the first woman to win a Sprint Cup pole, and generally made it possible for women to participate in professional racing.

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3. John Carlos and Tommie Smith

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When John Carlos and Tommie Smith did a black power salute on the podium after a 200 meter sprint at the 1968 Summer Olympics the world of sports was shaken. The two Americans were subsequently banned from the Olympic village and criticized by many people, but they brought the issue of civil rights to the forefront around the world. Doing this helped to encourage athletes to speak out against injustice at greater rates, and entrenched the Olympics as an event that will forever be linked to politics.

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2. Jim Abbott

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Despite only having one hand, Jim Abbott went on to have a baseball career that would make anyone proud. Abbott won a gold medal at the 1988 Olympics, then went on to compete in MLB from 1989-1999 with a career record of 87-108 and a 4.25 ERA. The highlight of his time in the majors was a no-hitter in 1993, and Abbott set the path for those born with biological deformities to participate in professional sports.

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1. Jackie Robinson

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The ultimate sporting pioneer is Jackie Robinson, who became the first African-American in MLB back in 1947 and subsequently dealt with abuses no person should have to go through. Robinson would go on to play 10 seasons for the Brooklyn Dodgers, winning a Rookie of the Year Award, one World Series title, the 1949 batting title and becoming a Hall of Famer in 1977. Unfortunately, Robinson was not around for this induction, but his legacy will forever live on, and he is the only MLB player to have his number retired by all 30 teams.


Around the Web

  • justsaynotosocialism

    At least, we know that Sam isn’t a tight end.

  • Layton Harman

    - Here’s a piece I did on the whole Michael Sam situation
    http://kcsportsninja.com/michael-sams-sexuality-should-really-not-be-that-big-of-a-deal/

  • Paula Stovall Tilley

    With Sam coming out he can say if he isn’t drafted it is because of his sexual orientalogy & possibly bring suit against the NFL, Personally I believe he did this for attention. After all who really knew much about his playing ability?

    • Tyler Leli

      I would understand where you were coming from if Michael Sam had played for a mid-major team, but he was the SEC Defensive Player of the Year for Missouri. The Tigers went to the SEC Championship and won the Cotton Bowl, and Sam was their best defensive player. The guy is a little undersized, but has been compared to Robert Mathis, and was going to be a second or third round pick before coming out. If anything coming out as gay hurts his draft stock, and it certainly doesn’t help.
      Thank you for reading by the way!