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How Gender, Age And Race Shape Our View Of What Makes A Great Black Athlete

After a month of counting down the list, our friends at The Undefeated have finally reached the top 10 in their ranking of the 50 greatest black athletes of all time. The top of the heap includes some easy calls but also a few surprises.

You can read more about the ranking methodology here, but in essence, The Undefeated and SurveyMonkey conducted a poll of American adults, asking them to rate a pool of celebrated black athletes in categories including their on-field1 dominance and their influence on society. Those results were then used to create a composite score that eventually determined the top 50.

The poll’s responses were weighted to make sure they reflect the demographics of the country as a whole, but not every segment of society agreed on how every player should be ranked. Using the survey’s composite scores,2 we broke down how voting groups differed when grading the athletes:

By gender

Differences in ratings of black athletes by rater’s gender
FEMALE VOTERS DIFF. SIG.* MALE VOTERS DIFF. SIG.
Serena Williams 1.1 Walter Payton 1.5
Simone Biles 1.1 Bill Russell 1.3
Wilma Rudolph 0.8 Pele 0.9
Arthur Ashe 0.8 Jim Brown 0.8
Gabby Douglas 0.8 Gale Sayers 0.8
Magic Johnson 0.7 Jerry Rice 0.8
Reggie Jackson 0.7 Carl Lewis 0.7
LeBron James 0.6 Derek Jeter 0.7
Jackie Joyner-Kersee 0.5 Ken Griffey Jr. 0.5
Scottie Pippen 0.5 Wilt Chamberlain 0.5

* Significant if higher than 90% confidence level. Poll for The Undefeated’s “50 Greatest Black Athletes.”

Source: Surveymonkey

As we’ll see throughout this exercise, not all of the differences in voting between groups were statistically significant.3 However, some were — and few more so than the male-female split over Serena Williams, one of history’s greatest athletes (full stop). Women ranked Williams as the third-best black athlete of all time; men slotted her at No. 13. She wasn’t alone in experiencing this kind of ratings gap: The five female athletes in the top 254 were all rated higher on average by women who took the survey than by men. Apparently even data sets can’t avoid the argument over where the top female athletes would rank in comparison with their male counterparts.

On the opposite side, legendary running back Walter Payton was rated much higher by men than by women — in fact, when you sort athletes by how much better they were ranked by men than women, four of the top six were football players.

By age

Differences in ratings of black athletes by rater’s age
VOTERS UNDER 35 DIFF. SIG.* VOTERS 35 AND UP DIFF. SIG.
Kobe Bryant 1.8 Hank Aaron 2.2
Derek Jeter 0.6 Pele 1.9
LeBron James 0.6 Gale Sayers 1.8
Shaquille O’Neal 0.5 Arthur Ashe 1.7
Michael Johnson 0.4 Roberto Clemente 1.6
Usain Bolt 0.2 Ernie Banks 1.4
Serena Williams 0.2 Ray Robinson 1.4
Muhammad Ali 0.1 Joe Frazier 1.2
Bo Jackson 0.1 Willie Mays 1.2
Stephen Curry 0.1 Jim Brown 1.2

* Significant if higher than 90% confidence level. Poll for The Undefeated’s “50 Greatest Black Athletes.”

Source: Surveymonkey

When we split voters up by age (voters under 35 versus voters age 35 and up), a few interesting trends emerge. The most obvious is that younger respondents tended to give higher marks to younger players: Aside from Muhammad Ali and Bo Jackson — both icons — every member of the list of players most favored by younger fans is under 50; conversely, the youngest member of the group most favored by older fans is Joe Frazier, who would be 73 if he hadn’t passed away in 2011.

The older cohort of voters also seemed to have a higher opinion of athletes in general, rating the entire pool about 0.6 points better, on average, than their younger counterparts did, and rating 14 players at least a full point higher than the under-35 group did.

By race

Differences in ratings of black athletes by rater’s race
NONWHITE VOTERS DIFF. SIG.* WHITE VOTERS DIFF. SIG.
Kobe Bryant 1.6 Jesse Owens 0.7
Serena Williams 1.3 Bill Russell 0.7
LeBron James 1.2 Jackie Robinson 0.6
Kevin Durant 0.9 Pele 0.5
Isiah Thomas 0.9 Arthur Ashe 0.4
Sugar Ray Leonard 0.9 Walter Payton 0.4
Wilma Rudolph 0.9 Floyd Mayweather 0.4
Julius Erving 0.8 Gale Sayers 0.3
Stephen Curry 0.7 Larry Fitzgerald 0.3
Muhammad Ali 0.6 Bo Jackson 0.2

* Significant if higher than 90% confidence level. Poll for The Undefeated’s “50 Greatest Black Athletes.”

Source: Surveymonkey

Two athletes stand out as having significantly more support among nonwhite voters than white ones: Serena Williams and Kobe Bryant. Out of the 60 athletes who received composite scores, Bryant was ranked dead last by white voters, which was one of the big reasons he — shockingly — didn’t crack The Undefeated’s top 50. (Nonwhite voters ranked him at No. 34.)

Williams was arguably even more affected by white voters. Nonwhite respondents placed her as first on the entire list, while white voters placed her 11th overall; the two groups’ combined numbers put her as No. 6 overall in The Undefeated’s ranking.

It’s also interesting to note that although none of the white voters’ preferences rise to the level of statistical significance, the top three athletes rated notably higher by white respondents — Jesse Owens, Bill Russell and Jackie Robinson — each took major strides in breaking down barriers that kept African-Americans from full and equal participation in their sports. The question of how race shaped Americans’ notion of what makes a great black athlete deserves a longer look, and our colleague Jerry Bembry is diving into that later today at The Undefeated.


Taken together, all these differences in voting patterns tell a complex story about how race, gender and culture help determine how an athlete is viewed — and ultimately how his or her legacy is appraised. Although some biases are predictable (for instance, older fans think athletes were better back in their day), some are more surprising. Measuring these trends serves as an invitation to a broader conversation about what we value most in sports and why.

Read more: The Undefeated’s list of the 50 greatest black athletes

Footnotes

  1. Or on-court, or on-ice, or — well, you get the idea.

  2. Which are made up of a player’s grades in each component category and range from about 18 to 21.

  3. Using the standard errors of the poll data sent to us by SurveyMonkey, we set up confidence intervals around the difference in each group’s average composite score. Then we used those intervals to determine which differences in an athlete’s ratings were significant at the 90 and 95 percent levels — meaning we are reasonably confident that the true difference in ratings between groups is not zero.

  4. Serena and Venus Williams, Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas and Wilma Rudolph.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Mai Nguyen is FiveThirtyEight’s quantitative editor.

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