With revolution in the air over in North Africa and the Middle East, it’s time to take a look at the most revolutionary moments in sports history that changed what we watched and how we watched sports.
1. Baseball rebounds from the Black Sox scandal by implementing rules that led to more home runs: After the Black Sox gambling scandal threatened the legitimacy of the preeminent professional sports league; baseball needed something to bring back the public to the fledgling national pastime. Baseball was on the brink of losing its legitimacy in the public eye and professional team sports as we know it wouldn’t be what it is today without baseball’s rebound from the scandal in the 1920’s. Babe Ruth led the way by revolutionizing the on-field product with his prodigious home runs, both in number and distance. The Yankees broke through with their first world championship and the team would become the biggest and most popular in American sports. The recovery, combined with the advent of radio, enabled fans to listen to their favorite teams in their living rooms and follow the games as they happened, without being at the ballpark. Everything that happened to baseball in this short period after the Black Sox scandal changed everything about baseball and the entire direction of sports in America.
2. Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color barrier in 1947: One could argue this as the most important, but I don’t think this would have had the same effect on society if baseball hadn’t recovered from what could have been a crippling gambling scandal. But Robinson’s internal fortitude and perseverance to help integrate baseball was every bit as important to the civil rights movement as anything and anybody. By injecting black athletes into the mainstream of American sports, Robinson helped create the image of a society where people of all races could work, play, and compete as equals. Two decades later, Texas Western University would start five black players in the NCAA basketball championship game and win. This marked the first time that an all-black starting five had won. Eventually, every major college sports teams, including those in the South, would integrate and reap the on-field benefits that a culture of inclusion would have on their teams.
3. 1958 NFL Championship Game: This game is considered by many to be the best NFL game ever played. The Colts beat the Giants after scoring a touchdown in overtime and becoming the first “instant classic”. Football is the ultimate television sport and this game sparked an increase in popularity that led to the formation of the American Football League in 1960. Five years later, the rival league would pit their champion against the NFL champion in what would become the ultimate sporting event in the world, the Super Bowl. Joe Namath and the underdog Jets from the upstart league would win the third Super Bowl and the leagues would merge into one league following Super Bowl IV. Forty years later, the NFL stands as the new National Pastime and the most popular American sports league by a wide margin. The 1958 Championship Game started it all.
4. ESPN starts broadcasting in 1979: The “Worldwide Leader in Sports” changed how we view and follow sports through their cable network and subsequent new media platforms. The popularity of college basketball exploded with the nightly matchups featuring a screaming, passionate former college coach, Dick Vitale, making every game sound like the greatest sporting event in the world. The NFL would start broadcasting games on ESPN in 1987 and televised baseball beginning in 1990. This lead to more nationally televised games, more money, and increased exposure for the leagues. SportsCenter and the “moments” that have become a part of everyday culture became the ultimate viewing destination for sports fans to get their highlights and information about their favorite teams. With the internet, ESPN.com was instantly a must read site and led to the mainstreaming of sports bloggers, like the Sports Guy, who helped transform how sports are covered in a new media age. Everybody who didn’t take the traditional route to sports writing is a descendent of this transformational change in the media landscape.
5. Magic and Larry Bird faceoff in the 1979 NCAA championship game: This is still the highest rated college basketball game of all-time and sparked the biggest personal rivalry in basketball history. In addition to bringing unprecedented recognition to the Big Dance, they carried their new rivalry to the downtrodden NBA. Behind the Showtime Lakers and Big Three-led Celtics of the 1980’s, the NBA went from a struggling league with huge image problems to a legitimate challenger to baseball’s #2 spot in team sports popularity. Maybe the league would have become popular as soon as Michael Jordan arrived anyway. But the NBA had failed to capture the mainstream public’s imagination before the Celtics and Lakers rivalry of the mid-80s. When Jordan came along, he might have been just viewed as another great talent in the line of athletic wings Elgin Baylor and Julius Erving, but the newfound popularity of the NBA combined with Jordan’s talent to make him the most popular athlete in the world. He might not have been that had it not been for Magic and Larry.
6. Buster Douglas knocks out Mike Tyson: Douglas dispelled the mythology surrounding Iron Mike’s greatness and ended big-time championship boxing as we knew it. Boxing still has stars, but the heavyweight division has always been the main weight class and the champion has often enjoyed world fame. Boxing was the most popular sport early in the 20th century, ceding to baseball during the Babe Ruth era, and then having periodical revivals with iconic heavyweight champions like Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali. Tyson was the next in that line of iconic greats. On February 11, 1990, twenty-one years before the people of Egypt ousted their leader, Buster Douglas changed the sport of boxing forever. There have been other glamorous champs in boxing, but none have approached the level of the great heavyweight champion since Tyson.
- Brian W.