Two come to mind: the U.S. ice-hockey victory over the Soviet team in 1980 (the “Miracle on Ice”), and Muhammad Ali’s knockout of George Foreman at the “Rumble in the Jungle,” in 1974. The American hockey team was amateur, the Russian one much less so, and Ali, with his opposition to the Vietnam War and brazen declaration that black is beautiful, represented a new spirit in the culture emerging in the ’60s.
Tommy Tomlinson, sports journalist and author, The Elephant in the Room
The 1926 Rose Bowl: Alabama 20, Washington 19. There was a time when the South wasn’t good at college football. This upset win gave the region a post–Civil War identity. Southern schools grew to have the best teams, the biggest stadiums, the deepest rivalries. Credit (or blame, if you prefer) that one game 93 years ago.
J. A. Adande, director of sports journalism, Northwestern University, and panelist, ESPN’s Around the Horn
There was a moment at the end of Texas Western’s victory over Kentucky in the 1966 NCAA men’s-basketball championship game when it wasn’t just a sporting event; it was a chapter in the civil-rights movement. For the first time, a basketball team with an all-black starting lineup won the title over an all-white team. In a picture captured by the photographer Rich Clarkson, the faces of the Kentucky players and coaches show a recognition of an irreversible change.
Michael Mims, Clanton, Ala.
Jesse Owens’s four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. A black American’s victory humiliated Adolf Hitler and produced a dark reaction from American society. Owens was not invited to the White House to meet President Franklin D. Roosevelt for recognition of his accomplishments, nor was he allowed to go through the main entrance of the Waldorf-Astoria to attend a gathering in his honor.
Michael Clemmons, Philadelphia, Pa.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos coming in first and third in the 200-meter race at the 1968 Olympics. It enabled their iconic Black Power protest, derailed their lives, created a national controversy, and inspired more people than any other 20 seconds in sports history.
Frank D. Rugienius, Philadelphia, Pa.
The New York Jets’ Joe Namath guaranteed an upset victory over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, in 1969; the Jets delivered. This game set the stage for the National Football League to become the dominant sports organization in the United States.
Glenn Huberman, Miami, Fla.
The Major League debut of Jackie Robinson, on April 15, 1947, with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He broke baseball’s color barrier, and after tolerating racist taunts throughout his career, he was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1962.
Adriana Delia Collins, San Francisco, Calif.
Passing Title IX in 1972, which prohibited sex discrimination in any education program, including sports, that receives federal aid.
David Drexler, Wilmington, Del.
The upset victory of the South Africa Springboks over the New Zealand All Blacks in the 1995 Rugby World Cup final. It provided the glue that held a newly united country together.