Changing The Narrative: Ten People Who Changed Sports

Eric Urbanowicz
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“Anything’s possible if you’ve got enough nerve.” That famous line by author J.K. Rowling is about innovation: to change the narrative and make advancements in sports and social life. Whether it’s changing the rules or setting a new standard, the people named here have made a difference in sports as a whole. Some through success and others through failures. Here are ten people who helped change sports forever:


10. Cornelius Johnson

Anybody whose played sports has two major memories: the first achievement they’ve ever had, whether it’s their hit, touchdown or even goal…and unboxing their first pair of cleats. While he didn’t help with the first one, Cornelius Johnson can be credited for the shoes that make running on grass easier.

Though they may have existed prior, the first written documentation of them existing comes from 1526 in the form of “football boots” as part of King Henry VIII’s “Great Wardrobe.” Johnson was tasked by the English Monarch to make him a pair of shoes to play football (soccer). Since then, cleats have become essential to all athletes who play on grassy surfaces.


9. Vince McMahon

Most people know Vince McMahon as the guy who runs the largest wrestling company, World Wrestling Entertainment. It wasn’t that way until 1982 when he bought his father’s company.

Over the next two decades, with the help of cable, he would see the territory based promotions go out of business, and lead to him purchasing them to build the wrestling empire we know today.

He also innovated the way we look at sports. In the initial run of McMahon’s XFL, they introduced a revolutionary idea called the “sky cam.” It was a camera that would follow the play through the air on a wire to give a different view. After the league folded, the NFL would use it for themselves and it is now used in every broadcast.


8. Honus Wagner

One of baseball’s earliest stars played shortstop during the “dead-ball” era. Honus Wagner, alongside Ty Cobb, is seen as one of the games earliest superstars, so much so that he’s on one of the rarest trading cards to ever exist.

However, he winds up here for another reason: he was the first athlete to receive endorsement money for the use of his name.

In 1905, Wagner signed a deal with Louisville Slugger to allow the use of his signature on baseball bats sold in stores. From there, endorsements from professional athletes and coaches has gone from everything to gum to sneakers to video games. We never get Madden video games or Jordan sneakers without Honus Wagner.


7. Pat Thompson

At least once a month, people flock to local bars or friends house to watch a wrestling, mixed martial arts or boxing event that is deemed “too big for free television.” Though it costs a little extra, pay-per-view events have united friends over their love for those higher ticket moments. For that, you can thank Pat Thompson.

Thompson was a marketing director for Viacom Cablevision in Nashville, Tennessee who put together a fight for the Welterweight Championship between Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas “Hitman” Hearns on September 16, 1981.

While pay-per-view had existed prior, it wasn’t the empire it had become thanks to boxing matches like Leonard-Hearns or the various wrestling events who utilized it. After the success of the first event, Thompson would go onto put together various boxing matches, wrestling events and even a Broadway play on pay-per-view.


6. Mike Francesa And Chris “Mad Dog” Russo

Think about every sports talk station, as well as their list programs. Somewhere in there are two guys that have differing opinions yelling at each other and being at their callers’ throats. There’s a good chance that they may have been indirectly influenced by “Mike and the Mad Dog” for that.

Though they didn’t create it, they did personify it, perfect it and made it their own. Their run from 1989 to 2008, weekday afternoons on WFAN 660, has been the inspiration for many shows in a similar format. Gone were the days of constant sports presentations, replaced with two normal guys giving their opinion on a subject and debating it.


5. Frank Jobe

One of the most devastating injuries in sports is that of damage to the ulnar collateral ligament of the elbow. Whether it’s a quarterback who was throwing too many deep passes or a baseball pitcher who didn’t get enough rest in between starts, an injury to the UCL is one that puts players on the shelf for a while.

Before 1974, there wasn’t anything that could be done about it other than to rest.

When Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Tommy John started feeling soreness in pitching arm, team doctor Frank Jobe came up with the idea of replacing the UCL with a tendon. Despite an initial one in one hundred chance of being successful, the surgery worked and John more than doubled his career win total.

The surgery itself has become a staple amongst pitchers in baseball, saving many careers in the process including John Smoltz, Kerry Wood and David Wells.


4. Billie Jean King

In a constant battle for gender equality, tennis legend Billie Jean King is one of the biggest names to help women’s’ sports take a step forward. Her defeat of Bobby Riggs in 1973’s “Battle of the Sexes” is seen a milestone not only in sports history but in the history of social justice as well.

After claiming that women’s tennis was inferior and at age 55 that he could still beat any of the top female players, Riggs challenged King to a match, which she declined.

However following Margaret Court’s loss to Riggs, King would accept after a the use of the limelight by Riggs received to taunt all female players. Defeating him in three sets in front of a national audience, it was a landmark moment in the evolution of women’s tennis and women’s sports as a whole.


3. Daniel Biasone And Leo Farris

Anyone that’s ever played basketball has broken three rules at least once: double dribbling, backcourt violation and shot clock violation. However, before 1954 there was no shot clock.

Early NBA teams like the Detroit Pistons were holding onto the ball as long as they could to limit star players like George Mikan. Something needed to be done. Daniel Biasone, the owner of the Syracuse Nationals and his general manager Leo Farris experimented with a 24-second clock during a scrimmage game. After convincing the NBA in 1954, they would adopt the shot clock idea.

While it seems simple, the shot clock sped up the game and saved the fledgling NBA in it’s early years.


2. Curt Flood

In the modern era of sports, players have more rights than ever before. One of those freedoms: free agency is possible because of a lawsuit from former outfielder Curt Flood.

After being traded to the Philadelphia Phillies from the St. Louis Cardinals in 1969, Flood refused to report to Philadelphia. This would result in him and the Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players Association suing commissioner Bowie Kuhn for the right for him to become a “free agent.”

Though the court ruled in favor of the commissioner, it set in motion the nullification of the “reserve clause” which lead to the beginning of free agency in 1972. It eventually spread to all sports.


1. Fritz Pollard

Everyone knows about Los Angeles Dodgers’ legend Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in 1947. However, he wasn’t quite the first African American athlete to play in a big four sport.

Fritz Pollard was a running back who made strides by being the first African American player at Brown University and the first African American player to play in the Rose Bowl game in 1916. Four years later, he would become one of the first two African American players to play in the NFL (the other being Bobby Marshall).

One year later, Pollard would become a co-head coach for his team, the Akron Pros. He, along with nine other African American players would be out of the league in 1926, before founding the all-black barnstorming teams: Chicago Black Hawks 1928) and Harlem Brown Bombers (1930’s).

Eric Urbanowicz


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