Sports Moments That Transcended the Game

The sports world often provides a glimpse into the political climate and current events that transpire during a certain time period. As sporting events are not played in a vacuum, it’s natural for this to occur. Sometimes, however, a sporting event not only provides a glimpse, but it transcends the game being played, and makes a statement in society as a whole. I’ve compiled a list of ten sports events I think have had an immense impact on sports, our country, and sometimes the world, along with some materials that can be found at the library that can provide you with further information regarding each one. I’d love to hear from you and what you like or don’t like about my list, and what you would include on yours.

1995 Rugby World Cup

No one seemed to understand what South African President Nelson Mandela was doing when he thrust his support behind the loved and reviled Springboks, the South African National Rugby Team, in 1994. It was a team loved by South African whites, and detested as a symbol of white supremacy by non-whites. With the Rugby World Cup coming to South Africa in 1995, what Mandela saw was an opportunity to unite a country torn apart by Apartheid by coming together to root for South Africa’s national team. His vision resulted in a remarkable run through the competition by the Springboks, ending with a victory against New Zealand in the championship game. Even more remarkable was how South Africa – ALL of South Africa – united behind their national team, just as Mandela had hoped, and took a big step toward becoming a unified nation.


Books Available at the Library:

Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation by John Carlin

DVDs Available at the Library:

The 16th ManESPN 30 for 30 film chronicling this story

Invictus – directed by Clint Eastwood, starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon – Movie based on this story


Joe Louis vs. Max Schmelling

The two Joe Louis/Max Schmelling bouts in 1937 and 1938 had an impact beyond the ring in more ways than one. As a symbol of Good vs. Evil, or democracy vs. fascism, the bouts pitted the good Americans – represented by Joe Louis, against the evil Nazis – represented by Max Schmelling. Because of this aspect, for the first time, Americans united behind an African American athlete in the same way Americans come together to cheer on their athletes in the Olympics. But this was also about throwing the idea of Aryan supremacy back in Adolf Hitler’s face. America mourned when Louis lost the first bout to Schmelling in 1937 by a knockout in the 12th round, and celebrated with national pride when he returned the favor in 1938 in a 1st round knockout, in which he pummeled Schmelling into submission. Certainly there were those whose bigotry would prevent them from ever cheering for Joe Louis, but regardless, Louis became the first African American national hero and a source of pride in a world where democracy and fascism would soon collide on the battlefield.

Books Available at the Library:

Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmelling, and a World on the Brink by David Margolick

Heroes Without a Country: America’s Betrayal of Joe Louis and Jesse Owens by Donald McRae

DVDs Available at the Library:

Joe Louis: America’s Hero – Betrayed – A documentary by HBO Sports


1958 NFL Championship Game

There is perhaps no game that has had more significance for the future of its sport than the 1958 NFL Championship Game between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants. Yes, it was a good game – the first NFL championship game that was decided in overtime – but if the same game had been played in the regular season, six weeks earlier, it probably wouldn’t have gained much notoriety. What made this game unique was that it was televised. And since the game went into overtime, people who were tuning in to see their usual evening programs ended up seeing the exciting finish to the game, which featured enough future Hall of Famers you’d need two hands to count them all. It whetted the appetites of football and sports fans everywhere, which at that time were more interested in the college game, and began the drive to put professional football teams in other cities. Eventually this led to the AFL/NFL merger, and the Super Bowl. So the next time you think about the multi-million dollar business of fantasy football, the multi-billion dollar business that is the NFL, the millions professional football players make today, and how the NFL is the most popular sport in the country, don’t forget to think back on the game that made it all possible.

Books Available at the Library:

The Best Game Ever: Giants vs. Colts, 1958, and the Birth of the Modern NFL by Mark Bowden

One Sunday in December: The 1958 NFL Championship Game and How it Changed Professional Football by Lou Sahadi

The Glory Game: How the 1958 NFL Championship Changed Football Forever by Frank Gifford


Magic Johnson Announces He is HIV Positive

On November 7, 1991, Magic Johnson announced to the world that he was retiring from basketball due to the fact that he had acquired the HIV virus. Although this didn’t happen in the sports arena, it involved one of the biggest superstars in the sports world, who had reached the pinnacle of his popularity – not only in this country, but in the world. It was one of those, “Where were you when…” moments – I was in my front yard playing football when I found out from one of my neighbors. Over the past twenty years, Magic Johnson has been actively involved in educating people about the HIV virus, fighting HIV/AIDS discrimination, and created the Magic Johnson Foundation to help combat HIV. When he made his announcement to the world, it was a moment that suddenly made everyone aware that HIV/AIDS was a disease that could affect anyone. And from that moment on the world slowly began to learn and understand more about the dreaded disease that has taken so many lives.

Books Available at the Library:

When the Game Was Ours by Magic Johnson & Larry Bird with Jackie MacMullen

100 Questions and Answers About HIV and AIDS by Joel Gallant, MD


Texas Western Wins the 1966 NCAA Tournament

Although college basketball had been integrated for years before Texas Western defeated Kentucky for the 1966 NCAA Championship, that was not the case throughout much of the south. But when Coach Don Haskins started five black players and handed Adolph Rupp’s all white squad a 72-65 defeat, the landscape of college basketball changed forever. It became apparent, even to the southern schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Southeast Conference, and the Southwestern Conference that in order to win they needed the best players. And the best players weren’t going to always be white players. Within a couple of years of Texas Western’s championship, the southern conferences were integrated, and the segregation which had existed in some of the premier basketball schools finally ended.

Books Available at the Library:

Glory Road: My Story of the 1966 NCAA Basketball Championship and How One Team Triumphed Against the Odds and Changed America Forever by Don Haskins

And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: Kentucky, Texas Western, and the Game That Changed American Sports by Frank Fitzpatrick

DVDs Available at the Library:

Glory Road – starring Josh Lucas, Derek Luke, and Jon Voight – Movie based on this story


The Battle of the Sexes – Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs

“The Battle of the Sexes” proved that a woman could beat a man in athletic competition. Never mind the fact that the tennis match itself was less than thrilling, or the fact that Billie Jean King was 26 years younger than a 55 year old Bobby Riggs. The fact is that there was so much buildup and fanfare to the match that 90 million people worldwide watched the match, while over 30,000 spectators watched live from inside the Astrodome. And if you don’t think it was all that significant, all you have to do is look at the scores of men afterward who insisted that Bobby Riggs purposely lost, or that King only won because she was so much younger. Just ask Bobby Riggs, who was disconsolate after his loss, how significant it was. It mattered – and during a time that had just seen Title IX come into effect, it validated the viewpoint that women belonged on the field of athletic competition.

Books Available at the Library:

Pressure is a Privilege: Lessons I’ve Learned from Life and the Battle of the Sexes by Billie Jean King

A Place on the Team: The Triumph and Tragedy of Title IX by Welch Suggs


ESPN Goes on the Air

When ESPN went on the air on September 7, 1979, there weren’t many people that took notice. The idea of a 24 hour sports network seemed ridiculous, and the countless telecasts of Australian Rules Football, kickboxing, slow pitch softball, racquetball, and volleyball seemed to validate that viewpoint. Little did anyone know at the time, that what ESPN was doing was a precursor to the way sports, and television in general would operate in the future. It’s hard to believe that we once lived in a world where you had to watch the local evening sports telecast, or check a box score in the newspaper to get your sports information. ESPN completely changed that. In fact, whether you like ESPN or not, it is undeniable that its power in the sports world is unmatched by any other media entity. ESPN not only ushered in the era of 24 hour sports coverage, but it also changed the cable television industry through its unprecedented negotiating tactics with cable companies and unique method of acquiring profits through its cable contracts. And if we look at all the other channels that have popped up in the past couple of decades that are dedicated to one topic, its influence goes even further. The History Channel, Comedy Central, HGTV, The Sci-Fi Channel, not to mention the sports channel such as NFL Network, MLB Network, NBA TV, and the newer collegiate conference networks such as the Big Ten Network, are all examples of the influence, and success, of ESPN.

Books Available at the Library:

Those Guys Have all the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN by James A. Miller

DVDs Available at the Library:

ESPN 30 for 30 Films – Some of the best sports documentaries ever made


Jesse Owens Wins 4 Gold Medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

The 1936 Olympics were supposed to be the venue where Adolf Hitler showed the world that the Aryan race was superior to all others. Fortunately, Jesse Owens had other plans. While he did not necessarily set out to stick it to Hitler, his dominance in the 100m, 200m, and Long Jump made the point loud and clear – black athletes were just as talented and gifted as any other athletes in the world. Interestingly, while he received a ticker tape parade in his honor when he returned home, Owens felt more snubbed by his own President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, than he did Hitler. He received no congratulations from his President, and after the ticker tape parade in his honor on Fifth Avenue in New York City, he actually had to ride the freight elevator to the reception that was given in his honor. So while we celebrate the fact that Jesse Owens achieved greatness in front of Hitler, his experience upon his return home provides an unfortunate reminder of how far his own country had to come in terms of racial equality.

Books Available at the Library:

Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics by Jeremy Schaap

Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936 by David Clay Large

Jesse Owens: An American Life by William J. Baker

DVDs Available at the Library:

Jesse Owens – Documentary about his life


The Miracle on Ice

There has been perhaps no greater American moment on the playing field, or in this case, in the skating rink, than the United States’ victory over the Soviet Union in the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics. It was the ultimate underdog story – a group of unknown amateurs and college kids brought together from different parts of the country, forged together by coach Herb Brooks, and given virtually no chance to defeat the powerful Soviet team in the semifinals of the Medal Round. A Soviet team, by the way, consisting of several of the best players in world ice hockey – including the best goaltender in the world, and three future Hockey Hall of Famers. In fact, the Soviet team had competed in several exhibitions against NHL teams in the year leading up to the 1980 Olympics with a good deal of success, including a 6-0 victory over the NHL All-Stars. And just two weeks prior, the Soviets had beaten the same American team it would face in the Olympics, 10-3, in an exhibition in Madison Square Garden. On top of all the underdog aspects of the game, the political climate between the U.S. and Soviet Union was as tense as it had been in years due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and President Carter’s eventual decision to boycott the Summer Games in Moscow. The fact that this ragtag group of American kids was able to beat the mighty Soviet Hockey Machine, 4-3 is still hard to believe 32 years later, but in doing so, they brought every American together, if just for one Sunday afternoon. It remains one of the most unbelievable, improbable, and chill inducing moments in sports.

Books Available at the Library:

And the Crowd Goes Wild: Relive the Most Celebrated Sporting Events Ever Broadcast by Joe Garner

DVDs Available at the Library:

Do You Believe in Miracles?: The Story of the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team – Documentary

Miracle – starring Kurt Russell – Movie based on this story


Jackie Robinson Integrates Major League Baseball

In my opinion, there has been no greater moment in the history of American sports than when Jackie Robinson ran out onto Ebbets Field as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. Because the history of this country has always been greatly influenced by the unfortunate legacy of slavery and the racial divide created by it, the integration of the nation’s pastime was immense. And in reality, it was more than that – it was the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. Years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat at the front of the bus, years before the boycotts and sit-ins in Alabama, and years before Martin Luther King Jr. led his march on the nation’s capital, Jackie Robinson took the field as the only black member of what had been to that point one of the most racist institutions in America – Major League Baseball. And with baseball’s importance in American society as the national pastime, his success, visibility, and courage inspired countless numbers of Americans, black and white, and fired the first shot in a battle that had been coming for decades.

Books Available at the Library:

Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy by Jules Tygiel

Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season by Jonathan Eig

The Team That Forever Changed Baseball and America: The 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers by Lyle Spatz

DVDs Available at the Library:

The Jackie Robinson Story – movie/documentary starring Jackie Robinson that shows his rise to the Negro and Major Leagues.


I'm the Red Carpet Librarian and work to bring lifelong support services to the Topeka and Shawnee County area through outreach and programming. I also am a sports enthusiast, work closely with the library's sports collection, and provide programming to engage the community's sports fans.

2 thoughts on “Sports Moments That Transcended the Game

  1. Regarding this subject, the 1980 US Olympic hockey team has always been one of my favorites. As you mention Nate, a great documentary on this team is “Do You Believe in Miracles?” an HBO special that is available at TSCPL. As Al Michaels points out, the confluence of events leading to that moment in 1980 means it probably can’t happen again the way it did. There are so many great scenes from the broadcast, but to me two stand out: the Soviet player watching the Americans celebrate and almost smiling at their show of emotion, and Coach Herb Brooks quickly leaving the arena so his anonymous team could celebrate in the spotlight without him. You would be hard-pressed to imagine a sports coach doing that today in his greatest moment of professional triumph. I was initially leery of Disney making a movie out of the 1980 team, but “Miracle” is pretty good and Kurt Russell nailed down Herb Brooks. Kind of like “Titanic”, it sure doesn’t hurt to have all the necessary drama already built in.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Brian. As you said, it was almost one of those situations where Hollywood couldn’t have scripted it any better. I really enjoyed “Miracle” as well, and you’re correct – Kurt Russell was outstanding as Coach Brooks. But then I like just about anything Kurt Russell does!

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