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A Detailed History of Athlete Empowerment

The team here at Pledge It is guided by the company’s founding principle: Empowering athletes to achieve social good. That can come in many forms and functions— from advocating for social justice and equality, to fighting global hunger, to funding medical treatment or equipment, to protesting a war. For as long as athletes have grabbed headlines, they have used their platforms to impact the issues that are most important to them. In turn, the stands taken by these men and women have enabled them to transcend sports, and cross from the record books to the history books. When you see many of the photos below, you will often think not of athletic achievements, but of achievements in social good.

1936: Jesse Owens Takes Gold at Hitler’s Olympic Games

American athletes were faced with hard options as how to best protest the Berlin Olympic Games, which took place during Hitler’s rise to power and an increased belief in Aryan supremacy. Some athletes, such as Harvard track star Milton Green, chose to stay at home and sit out the Olympics.

Owens, on the other hand, chose to dominate the games and infuriate Hitler. His four gold medals put him on the pedestal that made him a legend, his name still resonating nearly 85 years later. Mack Robinson also chose to compete, coming in second in the 200M dash. His little brother? Jackie Robinson.

1947: Jackie Robinson Breaks Major League Baseball’s Color Barrier

In 1947, Jackie Robinson became Major League Baseball’s first black player in approximately 60 years. Robinson's debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers ended what was known as baseball's "color line." Robinson went onto a 10-year Hall of Fame career, standing above the many racial slurs and threats he received from fans and opponents alike while on the diamond. The iconic second baseman used his platform to become an important voice in the Civil Rights movements when his playing career was over. He, along with Martin Luther King, Jr., led the Youth March for Integrated schools. The demonstration to end segregation in public schools saw over 10,000 attendees march on the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.

1950: Althea Gibson Plays in U.S. Open

By 1950, not a single person of color had competed in tennis' U.S. Nationals, now known as the U.S. Open. That changed when four-time national champion Alice Marble advocated for Althea Gibson’s inclusion via a letter written to American Lawn Tennis magazine.

The letter made waves in the tennis world, and Gibson was invited to the Open. There she faced the reigning Wimbledon Champion, Louise Brough. Gibson pushed Brough to a 9-7 third set before falling after a lengthy rain delay that may have benefitted Brough.

Gibson had another opponent that day, as she endured a sea of racial epitaphs raining down on her, and still pushed the champion to the brink. In spite of the loss, she proved she belonged on the U.S. Nationals circuit. Six years later, she became the first black tennis player to win the Grand Slam title by completing the championship set at the French Open.

1961: Bill Russell— No Service, No Basketball

Prior to the 1961-62 season Boston Celtics’ legend Bill Russell and some of his teammates were refused service in a Lexington, KY restaurant. They refused to play in the following preseason game and flew back home to Boston. In an era when athletes were supposed to toe the company line, this created public controversy and grabbed headlines. It was the first time Russell stepped on the platform of social justice that he has since dominated for the rest of his life.

1967: Muhammad Ali Refuses to Enter Military

Muhammad Ali famously faced jailtime for his refusal to serve in the Vietnam War, citing his right as a conscientious objector. He was convicted of violating Selective Service laws and stripped of his boxing licenses shortly thereafter. During the four years he fought in the courtrooms instead of the boxing ring, up to the point of an overturned conviction by the supreme court in 1971, he became a popular speaker at colleges and universities across the country. Ali became the voice of a generation, and rallied superstar athletes like Russell and Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) to his cause. Russell and Jabbar’s voices still carry immense influence today.

1967: Kathrine Switzer Barrels through Boston Marathon

The 1967 Boston Marathon featured a competitor by the name of K.V. Switzer. This runner would change the course of history, as the name was soon proven to belong to a woman— the first woman to enter the Boston Marathon.

A race official tried to pull her off course, but she would not be deterred and finished in four hours and 20 minutes in spite of the delay. Five years later, Boston Marathon rules were changed to allow female participants to compete. Switzer would go on to win the New York Marathon in 1974 and found the women’s running club 261 Fearless.

1968: The Olympic Platform, Take 2:

Thirty-two years after Owens and Robinson stole the Olympic stage to draw attention to racial inequalities, Tommie Smith and John Carlos carried their legacy forward. The two American 200M medal winners raised their fists in silent protest of racial discrimination as they took the podium to accept their respective gold and bronze medals.

1969: Curt Flood Challenges Major League Baseball’s Reserve Clause

Challenging the archaic nature of the reserve clause, St. Louis Cardinals’ outfielder Curt Flood was the first professional athlete to take a step toward free agency. The reserve clause was part of a player’s contract that stipulated when the contract expired, his rights were retained by the team. He could be traded, reassigned, or otherwise moved at the team’s discretion, but was not free to field offers from across the league.

Flood challenged this notion. He lost his fight with Major League Baseball and was essentially blackballed from the league, effectively ending his career. His fight set the stage for Jim “Catfish” Hunter to become baseball’s first free agent five years later. Hunter signed the first multi-million dollar contract in professional sports history, resetting the marketplace for athletes worldwide.

1973: Billie Jean King Wins Battle of the Sexes

Billie Jean King already had an established record of using her platform as a top-ranked tennis player to champion for women’s rights. Specifically, she advocated for equal pay, as in 1972 she received $15,000 less in prize money than her male counterpart for winning the U.S. Open.

In 1973, she played in an exhibition match dubbed “The Battle of the Sexes.” The match pitted her against retired men’s champion Bobby Riggs, whom she defeated in straight sets. That same year, King founded the Women’s Tennis Association, the principal organizing body of women’s tennis.

1982: Tom Wadell Founds Gay Olympics

In 1968, Decathlete Tom Wadell came in 6th in the Mexico City Games. In the ensuing years he used his platform as an Olympic Athlete to become a gay rights activist, culminating in the first Gay Olympics in San Francisco in 1982. The event had to soon turn its name to the Gay Games, but the legacy carries on, running every four years through present day.

1992: Arthur Ashe Rallies for Haitians

Arthur Ashe— one of the greatest tennis players of all time— stood up for Haitians during the AIDs epidemic in 1992. Haitians were being denied entry to America at the border due to fear of the disease. Ashe, who suffered from AIDs and would die 5 months later, led a demonstration at the White House. Ashe garnered national attention, in part for wearing a shirt that read, “Haitians locked out because they’re black.”

1995: Francois Pienaar and Nelson Mandela Use Rugby to Heal a Nation

South Africa and its history of apartheid was bleak. Nelson Mandela, now considered a hero to many, was often referred to as a terrorist during his rise to popularity and eventually, the presidency. The six weeks that South Africa hosted the 1995 World Cup changed everything.

Rugby was typically seen as a white Afrikaner sport and black South Africans would often root against its national team. When Mandela embraced the Springboks, and captain Francois Pienaar returned the favor, that changed the perception. South Africa went on to win that world cup, and the power of apartheid was greatly crippled.

The photo of Mandela and Pienaar shaking hands is seen as the moment the nation changed, and is a testament to the power of sports to promote social good.

1996: A Precedent Set

During the 1996 NBA season, standout guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand during the National Anthem. It took some time for people to notice, but when a reporter asked about it, the issue exploded. Abdul-Rauf was suspended for a game, and later blackballed from the league. He continued his professional career overseas, but his days in the NBA were never the same.

Similar to Colin Kaepernick 20 years later, Abdul-Rauf found the American flag to represent a system of oppression. He wanted to silently protest, but his stance remained anything but silent and was viewed by some as a slight on America as a whole.

2004: Another War, Another Protest

In protest of the Iraq War, Toronto Blue Jays’ all-star first baseman Carlos Delgado followed in the footsteps of Vietnam War era athlete-protesters. During the war it became custom to play God Bless America during the 7th inning in a show of support for the war. Delgado took a seat in the dugout, rather than stand on the field with his teammates, stating simply, “I don’t stand because I don’t believe in the war.”

2009: The rise of social media

Twitter, and later Instagram and SnapChat, gave athletes a brand new medium to express themselves and build their brand. No longer did they need their words published by a reporter. In recent years, social media has even expanded as essentially the new press conference. Athletes, such as former pro bowl defensive tackle Haoti Ngata above, post about their retirement or new team to hundreds of thousands, which can quickly spread into the millions as it is picked up by news outlets. The point of a traditional press conference is often rendered moot.

With the popularity of social media, athletes can connect with fans, tell their stories and build their brands in ways that past generations just couldn’t do. Many are taking advantage of that fact.

2014: Derek Jeter Founds the Players’ Tribune

New York Yankees’ legend Derek Jeter did not rest in retirement for long. Just days after playing his final game, he launched the Players’ Tribune. Rather than speaking through media, where often words can be twisted, The Players’ Tribune gives athletes a platform to speak on the issues that matter most to them. Social media gave players a voice. The Players’ Tribune gave them an outlet.

Recently, Utah Jazz players Kyle Korver, Thabo Sefolosha, Ekpe Udoh and Georges Niang were featured on the website talking about racism in the NBA. This was in response to the fact that visiting guard Russell Westbrook endured racially-charged verbal assaults from a fan during a game at the Jazz stadium just days earlier.

The Jazz in particular have been leaders in activism and social good. They have blazed new trails with jersey logos to support cancer research, and have run multiple campaigns to raise money for the cancer research foundation 5 for the Fight.

2016: Colin Kaepernick Kneels for National Anthem

In the third preseason game of the 2016 NFL season Colin Kaepernick drew national attention by taking a knee during the National Anthem. Kaepernick’s decision to silently protest against racial injustice and systematic oppression in America may have cost him his NFL career. In its place he has earned a number of awards for citizenship and courage, and became the face of a Nike campaign. Two full seasons after throwing his last NFL pass, Kaepernick remains one of the most famous and polarizing figures in American sports.

2017: Chris Long Donates Game Checks in Response to Charlottesville Hate-Fueled Rally

Chris Long was horrified by the show of hate and bigotry that flooded his hometown of Charlottesville when the Klu Klux Klan and other assorted "white nationalists" marched through the streets. He believed the best way to combat hate and ignorance was through the education of youths.

So Long donated the first six game checks of his 2017 NFL season to fund two scholarships to the prestigious St. Anne’s-Belfied School, his alma mater. Long was so inspired by this effort, he then continued with his Pledge 10 campaign. The Super Bowl Champion defensive end wanted to leverage his pledge of an entire season's salary toward educational equity for maximum impact. His Pledge 10 campaign allowed him to engage fans, supporters and corporate sponsors from all over the country.

With Pledge 10, he donated the rest of his season’s game checks and gained pledges from fans to benefit the communities of the cities he had played in throughout his NFL career.

Pledge It is proud of all athletes who use their platform to champion the causes that are most important to them. Time will tell who stands up next, but if history has taught us anything, the next inspirational story is right around the corner.

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Published on January 23, 2020

by Alexander Diegel

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