The ‘90s were an era filled with cultural moments that refused to be left behind. From music to fashion to iconic television shows, it can be strongly argued that 1990–1999 was one of the most prolific times to experience (insert Drake’s “What a Time to Be Alive” reference). With all the cultural explosion happening in the decade, sports was not the girl to be left out of the conversation.
It was in the ‘90s that the Chicago Bulls established their championship dynasty, Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield participated in one of the most legendary boxing matches to date, Tiger Woods won his first Masters and the U.S. Olympics assembled one of the greatest sports teams to ever exist, The Dream Team. And this isn’t even the tip of the iceberg when it comes to iconic ‘90s sports moments.
While there are many cultural events that helped define the era, one thing is evident: Black culture’s influence on sports is undeniable and unique. No matter the time frame nor sport, the impact of Black culture is everywhere. In fact, U.S. culture does not exist without Black culture, and the sports world has been better because of this intersectionality.
During February, ESPN is hosting a docuseries and podcast that chronicles the impact of Black culture on sports as a part of its Black History Month celebration and year round initiative, Black History Always. From HBCUs to record-breaking accomplishments, the collision of sports and Black excellence is everywhere.
Fashion and Beauty
How Black people present in terms of their look is often unique to their experiences and surroundings. It’s often a rejection of systemic norms that typically classify Black culture as inferior. Black presentation in fashion and beauty is an act of joy and resistance, and this dedication to self-expression found its way to every arena and field.
Back in the ‘90s, there was an abundance of Black men and boys who were growing out their hair so their stylists could give them cornrows. Where did this hair trend emerge from? None other than Allen Iverson. Slide on over to track and field, and you’d find women across the nation sitting in nail salons recreating the length and design inspired by Florence “Flo Jo” Joyner.
The various hairstyles (shout out to the Williams sisters and their braids and beads), the litany of Black-owned brands (FUBU, Sean John, Phat Pharm, Baby Phat, et al.) and the setting of trends is Black liberation, and it causes the world to stop and take notice.
Television, Music and Media
It’s virtually impossible to turn on the television, listen to the radio or open an app without the presence of Black creativity. Athletes have always bucked up against the notion that their sport was the only area they could conquer. With special guest television appearances to full-on career shifts, Black athletes have consistently showcased their range of talent.
Damien Lillard is one of the NBA’s current superstars, but beyond his jump shot, he also has major bars under the stage name Dame Dolla. Dwayne Johnson went from asking if we could smell what The Rock was cooking to headlining blockbuster films like Jumanji and the Fast and Furious series. WNBA star Candace Parker is executive producing a feature-length documentary chronicling the societal and cultural impact of Title IX, through her perspective. This is just a microcosm of all the media representation from Black people in sports.
You’ll also remember that some of the most iconic Black television shows from the ‘90s — Martin, Living Single and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air — all had guest appearances from athletes and boasted style from brands like Jordan, Nike and Adidas that still hit today. Why? Because the endorsement from Black influencers has lasting power. Or have you not witnessed the current mad dash for the re-release of Air Jordans?
Advocacy and Justice
The story of Black people is filled with resistance and challenge, but it holds equal amounts of resilience and joy. History has shown how Black people have broken barriers and paved the way for others to achieve and even exceed the accomplishments they’ve made. Let’s consider Jackie Robinson, the first Black player to enter the MLB for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Arthur Ashe mastered the predominately white game of tennis and won three grand slams. Debi Thomas blazed trails as the first Black woman to win the U.S. figure skating singles championship in 1986 — she was also the world champion the same year!
Without trailblazers and notable points of entries like these, sports as we know them wouldn’t even exist. Without Wilt Chamberlain, there is no Michael Jordan. Without Althea Gibson, there is no Venus or Serena Williams. Without Wendell Scott, there is no Bubba Wallace. Black people don’t just play the game — they change the game.
Advocacy doesn’t end with the entry of Black people into sports. It’s amplified by the acts of resistance that athletes displayed based on their convictions and values. Boxing great Muhammad Ali refused to fight in a war he didn’t believe in because he felt it didn’t represent his interests as a Black Muslim man. Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised the Black power fist in solidarity with the Civil Rights Movement during the 1968 Olympic Games. Colin Kaepernick led a movement as he knelt in peaceful protest to advocate for the fair treatment of Black people. Activist and commentator Angela Rye just inked a deal as a special commentator for ESPN to contribute topical features, commentaries and essays across various shows and platforms about the Black experience.
The fight for justice continues with the support of people in and adjacent to sports. From athletes to commentators and everyone in between, history is riddled with examples of how sports are the perfect platform to advocate for the causes of the Black community.
Want to hear a hard and sad truth? The world would be ridiculously boring without the contributions of Black people. The charisma, the mystique, the sheer innate excellence of the entire community is a testament to its ability to define culture on and off the court. Just watch people all over the world yell “Kobe!” as they throw trash away. You see – influence!
Because Black history is every day, February is not the pinnacle of celebration but the time the world pauses to amplify the contributions of Black people because, dammit, Black folk deserve it! To get flooded with more insight on the contributions of Black people, culture and sports, check out Black History Always collection on ESPN+.