A friend of mine recently contacted me and asked, “You know sports, who do you think would be on the Mount Rushmore of Athletes?” I responded to him and said, “This is easy” and answered the question pretty quickly. The more I started to think about it though, the more I realized how complicated this question was. My mind began to race to different variables that needed to be taken into account. I wrote him back again and inquired for more information about what we were using as a yardstick to gauge athletic excellence. We went back and forth all day and finally realized this question was not only complicated but one that required clear rules for the criteria that needed to be used.
Mount Rushmore Criteria:
On the field achievements
Off the field legacy
We will be looking for the best athletes in their sports but also will be taking into account legacy off of the field. The computation of those two factors will determine our Mount Rushmore.
This is a tricky topic to touch on because different parts of the world would view this question contrastingly. I can only speak from an American point-of-view when putting together this list. The popularity of a sport worldwide will be considered, but dominance in a given sport compared to other combatants, mixed with positive off the field legacy will weigh most heavily. Remember, a Mount Rushmore and The Greatest of All Time are different debates. A Mount Rushmore needs to take into account athletes who transcended their sport.
Mount Rushmore Finalists
MLB- Babe Ruth
Boxing- Muhammad Ali
Tennis- Roger Federer
Golf- Tiger Woods
NHL- Wayne Gretzky
Track & Field- Jesse Owens
Swimming- Michael Phelps
Tennis- Serena Williams
#10 Tiger Woods
Transcendence in sports describes more than just the ability to dominate. Transcendence is a term to describe climbing beyond ordinary limitations. In this example, it is the capacity to rise above the sporting realm. It isn’t a word thrown around lightly. Very few athletes have ever been considered transcendent. Tiger Woods was just that. Similar to the way Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, Woods carried the mantle for golf. Never had the game seen a player mixed with African American, Chinese and Thai ethnicity. He was a marketer’s dream, both on and off the course.
With that being said, it is amazing to think that Tiger Woods sits here at #10. A couple of years ago it would have seemed more likely that he might have been considered #1 for a Mount Rushmore list. Woods in the late 1990’s-early 2000’s single-handily put golf on the map. Everyone in the world from Nike to Gatorade wanted to be linked to Tiger. Unfortunately for Woods and the game of golf, off the field scandals started to catch up to him in 2009. From extramarital indiscretions to DUI arrests, Tiger’s image has taken a significant hit but let’s not forget the impact he has had on the game of golf.
#9 Babe Ruth
Babe Ruth began his MLB career as a left-handed pitcher for the Boston Red Sox but later grew to fame as a home run hitting slugger for the New York Yankees. Ruth set many MLB records during his career, both pitching and hitting. Some of these records still stand today, like slugging percentage and on-base plus slugging (OPS). His larger than life power and personality helped make him one of the greatest sports heroes in North American culture and is considered by many to be the greatest baseball player of all time.
During his playing career, he was subjected to extraordinary press and public scrutiny. A lot of the attention revolved around his affinity for drinking and his escapades with women. He was a known womanizer and a habitual cheater. Ruth did very little to hide his extravagant lifestyle. A famous quote by Ruth was, “its simple kids, if you drink and smoke and eat and screw as much as me, well kiddos, someday you’ll be just as good at sports.” In defense of Ruth, the press generally ignored the good he did, like often visiting children in hospitals and orphanages. For all the turmoil surrounding Babe Ruth, his on the field prowess is too incredible to ignore. He changed the way baseball was played.
#8 Michael Phelps
If this were a Greatest of All-Time list, Phelps would have to be higher. Phelps has 28 Olympic medals, with 23 of those being Gold. I think Phelps has a couple of factors working against him here though, for why I do not have him higher.
The Olympics are held every four years. When the Olympics were not going on, Phelps would be out of sight and out of mind as far as competitive sports were concerned.
However, during those stretches of time, Phelps wasn’t always out of sight of the public eye. Marijuana controversies and multiple DUI arrests plagued his in-between time till the next Olympics would arrive.
I think Phelps is a fascinating person of where the future will take him. As time goes on, his accomplishments will become even more revered. He has done a great job of changing up his public image as well. In 2008, he spent $1,000,000 to set up the Michael Phelps Foundation, which focuses on growing the sport of swimming and promoting healthier lifestyles. Also, in 2017, he joined the board of Medibio, a company that is focused on the diagnosis of Mental Health Disorders. I believe he has the most room for growth, being only 32-years-old at the time of writing this. If Phelps can continue to develop his legacy positively, it will be interesting to see where that might take him in years to come.
#7. Roger Federer
Roger Federer is undoubtedly one of the most well-rounded individuals to show up on this list. 20 Grand Slams (the most in history for a male player), 302 weeks ranked #1 in the world, 237 of which in a row. Outside of the court, you can expect the same. He has won the ATP’s sportsmanship award a record thirteen times and has been voted by fans to receive the ATP’s fan favorite award for fifteen consecutive years. Federer has redefined longevity in the world of tennis. It was once unheard of to play into your 30’s, but he has dispelled any notions of that being a set in stone rule, by not only winning at the age of 36 but actually having a resurgence back to the top. He is grace and fluidity in a volatile tennis world.
How is it possible that he could land at only #7 with all the accolades that have been mentioned? Longevity is a beautiful thing and not something that I want to dock Federer on. His ability to play late into his 30’s resonates from the elegance he plays with. His counterparts of Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal do not look like they will be able to play very long into their 30’s before they have to retire for numerous reasons, many of which have to deal with the ferocity both players play with.
Nadal is currently 31-years-old, and Djokovic is 30-years-old. Djokovic still has a year to add to his total, but if you compare all three players at the age of 31 (or younger for Djokovic) you get the following:
Grand Slam Titles
Current Head to Head Records:
Rafael Nadal 23 wins vs. Roger Federer 15 wins
Novak Djokovic 23 wins vs. Roger Federer 22 wins.
All-Time Winning Percentage
Yes, Federer is currently the greatest male tennis player of all time, but it isn’t inconceivable that Nadal could catch a second wind late in his career, kind of like the one Federer is going through right now and come very close to matching the exact statistics Federer put up. I don’t think it will end up happening, but for Nadal, and even Djokovic, to be as close as they are to Federer in the same era, I believe it does take away from putting Federer any higher than #7.
#6 Wayne Gretzky
Wayne Gretzky “The Great One” is the greatest hockey player of all time. He is the leading scorer in NHL history, with more goals and assists than any other player. Gretzky has amassed more assists in his career than all other players have scored total points and is the only NHL player to score over 200 points in a season – a feat Gretzky accomplished four times. At the time of Gretzky’s retirement, he held 61 NHL records, and currently today he still owns 60 of them.
Gretzky’s biggest downfall for this list is hockey has a smaller pool of players to draw from and isn’t as popular worldwide as any of these other sports that have been mentioned. From a pure individual dominance standpoint, I am not sure if anyone can hold a candle to him. From a team dominance point of view, he won four Stanley Cups in his twenty-year career, outstanding but maybe not as dominant as others in their respective sport. Gretzky is another athlete that would be better suited for a Greatest of All-Time list than he would on a Mount Rushmore ballot. His accomplishments take him to #6, but a lack of hockey interest worldwide will stall him there.
Pele is universally regarded as one of the best soccer players of all time. In 1999 he was voted World Player of the Century by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics. That same year, The International Olympic Committee elected him Athlete of the Century. Pele is the most accomplished league goalscorer of all time, scoring 1281 goals in 1363 games. This total includes unofficial friendlies and tour games. During a portion of his playing days, Pele was the highest paid athlete in the world.
Soccer is the most popular sport in the world, how can Pele show up at only #5 and just miss our Mount Rushmore? This will surely be a controversial take, but I think Pele is not the most dominant soccer player ever. Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi, in my opinion, could both stake claims as being that. Maradona was soccer’s bad boy and often loses points to Pele because of that and Messi still has an active career, and I find it difficult to accurately rank a player until their career is either done or close to over. No World Cup does hurt Messi’s argument slightly to be lauded as the best soccer player ever.
My biggest gripe of Pele from a dominance standpoint comes from him not being challenged in his club career. After the 1962 World Cup, rich European clubs tried to sign him but the government of Brazil a year earlier had declared Pele an “official national treasure” which prevented him from being transferred out of the country. Most of Pele’s club career was spent playing against inferior opponents in Brazil. It must be noted that when his club team of Santos did tour to play European teams, Pele did dominate scoring 204 goals in 195 career games. It is just unfortunate that we didn’t get to see more of that night in and night out. He is very close to being on my Mount Rushmore, and you could make sound arguments for why he should be on it but on my list he will just miss.
Meet our Mount Rushmore of Athletes!
Not only is Michael Jordan the greatest basketball player of all time, but he is also the most marketed athlete of his generation. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson helped to put the NBA on the map, but Jordan took the NBA’s popularity to a new level in the 1980’s and 1990’s. His prolific scoring caught the attention of diehard NBA fans, but his leaping ability captured the imagination of casual and non-basketball fans. His dynamic hops earned him the nickname of Air Jordan and His Airness.
As new fans started to gravitate towards the NBA, they quickly became aware that Jordan was the complete package. Offensively he was a giant, but defensively he was just as stout. Jordan’s individual accomplishments include: five Most Valuable Player Awards (MVP), ten All-NBA First Team Awards, nine All-Defensive First Team Awards, fourteen-time NBA All-Star, three All-Star Game MVP Awards, ten scoring titles, three steals titles, six NBA Finals MVP Awards, and the 1988 Defensive Player of the Year Award. Along with all those awards he also holds the record for highest career scoring average of 30.12 points per game and the highest career playoff scoring average of 33.45 points per game. Jordan’s six NBA Finals MVP Awards were the result of his six NBA Championships he won in his career.
As marvelous as his records and stats are, they pale in comparison to his product endorsement power. He fueled the success of Nike’s Air Jordan shoes and in the process incited worldwide sneaker fandom. His influence has made collecting, wearing and buying sneakers a global phenomenon. Endorsements didn’t stop with Nike though. Gatorade, McDonald’s and even Warner Brothers, to name a few, all shilled out millions of dollars to have Jordan’s name attached to their product. His 1996 Warner Brothers film Space Jam, where he starred as himself, became a global hit. All these factors have helped to make Michael Jordan the third richest African-American at 1.2 Billion dollars, behind only Oprah Winfrey and Robert F. Smith.
Jordan’s short retirement from basketball in 1993 and decision to play professional baseball in 1994 only adds to his lore and mystique. Any Greatest of All Time list or Mount Rushmore needs to start with Michael Jordan. His influence across the board is uncanny compared to all other athletes.
Born Cassius Clay on January 17, 1942, the self-proclaimed “Greatest of All-Time” was a towering figure in his prime, with a mouth that was as brash as his stature. Ali was known for being quick-witted and shrewd with his words, but he was equally as nimble and fast with his hands and feet. It is safe to say no athlete has touched as many lives or has been celebrated as widely. This wasn’t always the case though. If you had told someone in 1967, that Ali would become the most beloved athlete in the world by the end of his life, well you would have won yourself a lot of money. The day after defeating Sonny Liston for the Heavyweight Title in 1964, he changed his name from Cassius Clay to Cassius X, for religious reasons, and shortly after to Muhammad Ali. His true adage comes from his battles outside of the boxing ring, versus the ones that were inside of it. He refused to accept induction into the United States armed forces based off of spiritual beliefs. This decision cost him millions of dollars, his heavyweight belt and years off the prime of his career.
This choice of a “fighter,” who decided to not fight for his country, turned Ali from a boxing phenomenon to a nationwide villain. On April 28, 1967, appearing for his scheduled induction in Houston, he refused to step forward three separate times at the call of his name. Warned by officers that he was committing a felony that was punishable up to $10,000 in fines and five years in prison, he once again refused to step forward when his name was called. That very day he was stripped of his titles.
At his trial two months later, it took the jury only 21 minutes of deliberations to find Ali guilty. The judge levied the maximum sentence possible. After a court of appeals in 1968 upheld the conviction, the case eventually went to the Supreme Court. Between 1968-1971, the countries opinion began to change on the Vietnam War and people turned against the thought of it and started to side with Ali and his stance. In 1971, the Supreme Court ruled that Ali’s conviction was to be overturned.
Eight months before the Supreme Court ruled, Ali had returned to the ring in Georgia (where there was no state commission.) Having not fought in almost four years, Ali scored a third round TKO over Jerry Quarry. Back into the fight game and still undefeated he set his sights towards bigger and better things and on March 8, 1971, he took on undefeated Heavyweight Champion Joe Frazier, in a fight billed as “The Fight of the Century.” Each man received 2.5 million dollars. The fight amazingly lived up to its billing, but unfortunately for Ali, Frazier left with a unanimous decision victory and the belt.
Ali reeled off ten straight wins following his loss to Frazier from 1971-1973, before suffering a shocking loss to Ken Norton. He avenged this loss in his next fight and once again set his sights on a Joe Frazier clash. A lot had changed since their first encounter though. Ali was not the fighter he was once considered to be, and Frazier was no longer the Heavyweight Champion of the World, after being knocked down six times in two rounds by George Foreman. January 28, 1974, the second fight for Ali-Frazier took place. This contest wasn’t as entertaining as the first but still was a thrilling bout. This time Ali gained a unanimous decision victory over Frazier and this set up a clash of Ali versus undefeated Heavyweight Champion George Foreman.
George Foreman was a behemoth of a man. Many feared that Ali’s life was at risk taking on such an impossible task. “The Rumble in the Jungle” was fought on October 30, 1974, in Kinshasa, Zaire. Ali was a 7-1 underdog for the fight. During the bout, he introduced his Rope-A-Dope strategy, where he stood flatfooted against the ropes and covered up as Foreman flailed away. His strategy worked. As the eighth round was coming to an end, Ali noticed that Foreman began to look visibly exhausted. With only seconds remaining in the round, Ali took advantage of the situation, knocking Foreman out to regain the belt. Ali was America’s champion once again. The most hated athlete of the sixties was now the most heroic of the seventies. A man that was once denounced as anti-American in 1967 was being invited to the White House in 1974.
Unfortunately for Ali, all the punches he took affected him. In 1984 he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a neurological disorder characterized by tremors and slowness of speech and movement. The condition left him a shadow of his former self, but he still attempted to spread goodwill to all. Arguably Ali’s most defining moment in the public eye came at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, where he stood front and center in the spotlight. With the world watching and his hands shaking, he steadied them to light the Olympic cauldron, which signified the start of the games. Many in attendance and around the world shed a tear watching. Ali who once divided a nation was now a unifying and beloved symbol.
If Serena Williams were a man would this choice even give you a second thought? Williams doesn’t get onto my Mount Rushmore for being a woman, but she most definitely won’t be excluded because of it.
We are conditioned to think “the greatest of all-time” or “Mount Rushmore” has to be a compiled by a bunch of men. In reality, this type of question will always be rigged against any woman. Our culture, unfortunately, does not view sports played by women as equal to sports played by men. Even when a female athlete like Serena Williams, dominates her given sport, we must find a way to put down her accomplishments. It starts with a comment like, “she definitely can’t beat a top-ranked man, how about a top-50 man? Top-100? We even further demean her achievements and start mentioning retired men. The sexism that goes into that thought process is astounding. If you want to compare Serena Williams to a man, compare her by her dominance level against competitors or her contribution and elevation of the game she has provided. Measuring her achievements in any other way is ridiculous.
So let us take a look at some of her achievements:
319 weeks at #1 in the world
72 Career Singles titles
23 Career Doubles titles
783-130 Singles record
185-31 Doubles record
27-4 Mixed Doubles record
Four Olympic Gold Medals
39 Grand Slam titles (23 singles, 14 women’s doubles, and two mixed-doubles)
Held all four Grand Slam singles titles simultaneously (twice)- only Rod Laver and Steffi Graf have achieved this twice. Also did this in doubles with her sister Venus Williams.
She is the only tennis player in history (man or woman) to have won singles titles at least six times in three of the four Grand Slams
Only tennis player (man or woman) to have won seven Grand Slam titles in two separate Grand Slams
Only tennis player (man or woman) to have won 10 Grand Slam titles in two different decades
Serena’s biggest impact astonishingly may come off the tennis court. Tennis has had some great African American influencers throughout the years like Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson, but Williams’s influence to young African American boys and girls who see her as a role model and ambassador to the sport of tennis may be unparalleled to any who have ever played the game. Players such as Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, and Donald Young, who have all credited her and her sister Venus Williams for getting them into the sport, have already felt her effect. For generations, African Americans had preferred to play other, but Serena has had a significant influence in showing young children that tennis is another option. It is hard to find someone who has had more significance both on and off the court than Serena Williams has. She is the current face of tennis because of her dominance but also is the future of the sport because of the brigade of young African American boys and girls who she has influenced.
Jesse Owens may only have a singular Olympics he is remembered for, but in my opinion, it is the greatest moment in American sports history. Owens during his lifetime was identified as the greatest and most famous athlete in track and field. He specialized in sprints and the long jump. He rose to fame in 1935 when attending Ohio State, by setting three separate world records and tying another at a Big Ten track meet in Ann Arbor Michigan. These records happened in a 45-minute span and are called “the greatest 45 minutes in sports ever.”
It is often forgotten that leading up to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, that many African American’s felt that Owens shouldn’t represent the United States at the games. This was based on the thought process that the black community was suffering at the hands of a white racist regime. Avery Brundage, president of the American Olympic Committee, stigmatized the advocates of a boycott as “un-American agitators” and eventually Owens and his other African American teammates decided to go to the Olympics.
In 1936 Owens and his United States teammates set sail on the SS Manhattan and arrived in Berlin for the Summer Olympics. German tyrant Adolph Hitler was using the games to show the world a rejuvenated Nazi Germany. He had high hopes that German athletes would dominate the games in front of the world. Just before the competitions, Adi Dassler, the founder of Adidas, visited Owens in the Olympic Village. He convinced Owens to wear Gebruder Dassler Schuhfabrik shoes, the first sponsorship for a male African American athlete.
The first day of competition on August 1, 1936, Hitler shook hands with only the German winners and then left the stadium. The president of the International Olympic Committee insisted that Hitler greet every medalist or none at all. Hitler decided to welcome none and skipped all further medal presentations. Owens started his Olympics on day-two (August 2nd) and won gold medals in all four events he was entered in. Hitler came under criticism for failing to acknowledge or shake hands with Owens during any of these wins. Owens responded to these claims by saying, ” Hitler had a certain time to come to the stadium and a certain time to leave. It happened he had to leave before the victory ceremony after the 100-meter race, but before he left, I was on my way to a broadcast and passed near his box. He waved at me, and I waved back.” African-American newspaper editor Robert L. Vann is one of the only ones who claimed to have seen this small interaction. He wrote, “And then… wonders of wonders I saw Adolph Hitler, salute this lad. I looked on with a heart, which beat proudly as the lad who was crowned king of the 100 meters event, get an ovation the likes of which I have never heard before. I saw Jesse Owens greeted by Grand Chancellor of this country as a brilliant sun peeped out through the clouds. I saw a vast crowd of 85,000 or 90,000 people stand up and cheer him to echo.”
Albert Speer later reported that Hitler “was highly annoyed by the series of triumphs by the marvelous colored American runner, Jesse Owens. People whose antecedents came from the jungle were primitive, Hitler said with a shrug; their physiques were stronger than those of civilized whites and hence should be excluded from the games.” In a 2009 interview, German journalist Siegfried Mischner claimed that Owens carried around a photograph in his wallet of Hitler shaking his hand. Mischner alleged that Owens showed him the picture and told him: “That was one of my most beautiful moments.” Mischner added that the photo was taken behind the honor stands and because of this was not captured by the world press. This picture has never been seen or been confirmed to have ever existed.
However, in 2014, Eric Brown, Britain’s most decorated living fighter pilot, independently stated in a BBC documentary, ” I actually witnessed Hitler shaking hands with Jesse Owens and congratulating him on what he had achieved. Additionally, an article in The Baltimore Sun in August 1936 reported that Hitler sent Owens a commemorative inscribed cabinet photograph of himself. On October 15, 1936, Owens addressed an audience of African American’s in Kansas City and said, ” Hitler didn’t snub me- it was our president who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram. Upon arriving back in the United States things didn’t get easier for Owens, he was not permitted to enter the main doors of the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York and instead was forced to travel up in an elevator to reach the event that was honoring him. President Franklin D. Roosevelt refused to invite Jesse Owens to the White House to celebrate his accomplishments.
Racism was more rampant than ever in the United States, and Owens found it very difficult to get a job. He took on small jobs such as working as a gas station attendant and playground janitor. Later in 1942, a friend and former competitor Willis Ward brought Owens to Detroit to work at Ford Motor Company as an assistant personnel director. He later became a director for the company. In his spare time to make extra money, Owens would race against thoroughbred horses. Owens said, “People say that it is degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals.”
It is arguable that no athlete has ever suffered more discrimination or exemplified the struggles of cruelty and poverty better than Jesse Owens. His career and life seemingly and regrettably coincide with one another. Generally the forgotten about American superstar in sports history, his life suffered the same fate. Owen’s was pushed to the back burner after standing up to tyranny in Berlin and representing the United States with honor and grace at the 1936 Olympics. It is unfortunate that Owens does not have a better end to his story, but he is a true American icon, who didn’t always get the accolades or respect he deserved.
These are my choices for a Sports Mount Rushmore. I would love to hear from you with your selections on Twitter and Instagram @teeoffsports.