Jackie Robinson tops ESPN survey

According to some of Martin Luther King Jr.'s closest advisers, he was an enormous sports fan. According to 100 professional athletes we spoke with, they're enormous fans of his, too.

"Wow, it's an honor to take this survey," said one NFL Pro Bowler. "MLK had a huge impact on me as a kid -- even though I was born a few years after he died. That's legacy, man."

We wanted to measure that legacy by asking 10 tough questions about the black athlete in America, circa 2010. As always, to ensure that we got to the heart of serious matters, we promised anonymity in their answers.

End result: Pro athletes today say tremendous progress has been made, offer insights into how they see themselves and how they feel they're perceived and, in answers to various questions, anoint one athlete who they say most shaped their lives: Michael Jordan.

If you were told in the year 2024 that a retired black athlete would be elected president of the United States, whom do you think it would be?

Two Lakers, Magic Johnson and Derek Fisher, finished in a tie for second place, with athletes citing similar reasons for their popularity.

"I grew up idolizing Magic, and now to see him go from a great player to a successful businessman, I think he could do anything," said a current NBA guard. Ditto for Fisher, whom fellow athletes applauded as much for his basketball abilities as being the National Basketball Players Association president for the past four years. "I'd vote for that guy to do just about anything -- league president, charity president, country president," said one NBA All-Star.

But the clear top choice in our balloting was Jordan, the first former player to become majority owner of an NBA franchise. And it wasn't just NBA players naming him as a candidate for president.

"What sets Jordan apart is he's done so much more than basketball," said an MLB player. "Even the whole baseball attempt was inspiring to me. I remember thinking, 'He's the best basketball player ever, and he's walking away to try baseball just because he wants to test himself? Maybe I need to think more like that.'"


1. Michael Jordan: 17.5 percent
T2. Derek Fisher, Magic Johnson: 12.4 percent each
4. Kevin Johnson: 6.2 percent
5. David Robinson: 5.2 percent

Who are the three most important African-American athletes ever?

On this topic, athletes sounded like history professors. Two picked Tommie Smith, who broke a world record in the 200-meter dash at the 1968 Olympics, then raised a "Black Power" salute during the medal ceremony. Others named Arthur Ashe (10.4 percent), Bill Russell (12.5 percent), Jim Brown (16.7 percent) and Jesse Owens (19.8 percent).

But the top vote-getters were well out in front. Jackie Robinson (62.5 percent) and Muhammad Ali (57.3 percent) were named the most.

And the third-most important athlete ever also happens to be the No. 1 pick for most likely to be president in 2024. "I never played organized basketball in my life," said a current NFL player. "But I grew up wanting to be like Mike. We used to all run off the football field and try to dunk the ball on the goalposts with our tongues out. He was what we all aspired to be -- a successful black athlete, a role model and a great businessman."

1. Jackie Robinson: 62.5 percent
2. Muhammad Ali: 57.3 percent
3. Michael Jordan: 54.2 percent
4. Jesse Owens: 19.8 percent
5. Jim Brown: 16.7 percent
6. Bill Russell: 12.5 percent
7. Arthur Ashe: 10.4 percent
8. Magic Johnson: 9.4 percent

What is the image of the black athlete? A. Very positive; B. Somewhat positive; C. Neither positive nor negative; D. Somewhat negative; E. Extremely negative.

More pro athletes chose "somewhat positive" than any other answer. "There are so many of us out here doing so many great things that you never read about," said an NBA title-winner, one of the 39.4 percent who said "somewhat positive." "But when one or two guys step out there and do something crazy, it spoils it for guys like myself and others to get a fair look."

The second choice, "neither positive nor negative," was named 25.3 percent of the time. "We have a lot of black athletes that are doing well and we have a lot of young knuckleheads that need to grow up," said a former NBA lottery pick.

B. Somewhat positive: 39.4 percent
C. Neither positive nor negative: 25.3 percent
D. Somewhat negative: 18.1 percent
A. Very positive: 16.2 percent
E. Extremely negative: 1 percent

How does the image of the black athlete compare with reality? A. Image is same as reality; B. Image is better than reality; C. Image is worse than reality.

The responses to this question almost ended in a tie between A and C. But ultimately, "image is the same as reality" edged out "worse than reality," 39.8 percent to 37.8 percent.

"We live in a world where you are allowed to be who you are," said an MLB All-Star. "People shouldn't put more expectations on an individual, because we're all flawed. Everybody seems to get that and views us that way."

A. Image is the same as reality: 39.8 percent
C. Image is worse than reality: 37.8 percent
B. Image is better than reality: 22.4 percent

True or false: Black athletes should take a more active role in the black community.

The answer is a resounding yes, by a margin of 81.6 percent to 18.4 percent. Many athletes answered "true," but added the caveat that they thought giving back is crucial for any and all human beings, not just black athletes.

"You need more black athletes doing more positive things," said a world champion boxer. "A lot of people in the ghetto, in poor neighborhoods like where I grew up, don't believe there's life outside of the city, outside what they know. We need to be in there showing them, telling them, that there is."

On a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being absolutely not; 10 being absolutely yes), are black athletes expected to be role models for the black community?

The average rating, according to the responses we received, was 8.74. So athletes are pretty close to the "absolutely yes" end of the spectrum.

Said one NHL player whose response was a 10: "It's not exactly what you signed up for -- I just wanted to make a living playing hockey. But it is something that you settle into and have to do, and if you put any time and effort into being a role model, believe me, it's worth it."

Others embraced the idea and gave it a high number, but felt uneasy about the expectations. "I'll say 7," said one former NBA lottery pick. "That being said, we're not the kids' parents. We're entertainers. We can't do everything for these kids that look up to us."

1. "10": 54 percent
2. "8": 14 percent
3. "9": 13 percent
4. "5": 9 percent
5. "7": 7 percent

Rank the following athletes by how gently the media treated their recent off-the-field issues (1 being treated the kindest; 5 being treated the worst)

Answers in the middle varied wildly, with Roger Clemens finishing a good distance ahead of the tossup Plaxico Burress/Barry Bonds rating.

But at the top and bottom of the spectrum, the answers were clear: Black athletes thought Roethlisberger's off-field indiscretions were covered much more kindly than Vick's problems.

"All of those guys got raked pretty bad," said a champion boxer. "But what happened to Vick wasn't right, especially compared with how the other guys on that list were treated."

Ben Roethlisberger: Average rating of 1.6
Roger Clemens: 2.3
Plaxico Burress: 3.5
Barry Bonds: 3.6
Michael Vick: 4.8

Who's the most color-blind -- fans, coaches, owners or the media:

Said one MLB player: "That's a close one between owners and coaches. I'll go with coaches. But the bottom line is the bottom line -- if you win games, coaches and owners don't care what you look like."

Said one NFL linebacker: "When it's all said and done, the color that counts the most is green."

1. Coaches: 53.4 percent
2. Fans: 21.8 percent
3. Owners: 14.4 percent
4. Media: 10.4 percent

Question: What impact has race had on your personal image:

Many respondents flashed back to their nominees for "most important black athletes ever" as they answered this question. "I know it was tougher for Jackie and Jim Brown and Ali, but they laid the groundwork for me and my generation to embrace our identities," said a recent NBA first-round pick. "That's why I feel like being black has had a positive impact on my self-image."

Overall, 46.9 percent said race had no impact on their image, with 40.6 percent saying being black has had a positive impact.

No impact: 46.9 percent
Positive: 40.6 percent
Negative: 12.5 percent

Yes or no: Black coaches are held to a different standard than white coaches during the hiring process

The short answer: Yes, there's a different standard for African-American candidates than white candidates. Almost two-thirds (64.6 percent to be exact) of respondents said black coaches have a harder time getting hired.

"The numbers don't lie," said an MLB player. "Black coaches have to prove themselves for a lot longer, with a lot more impressive of a résumé, than white coaches."

When thinking of the image of black athletes from the past, what three words come to mind?

The athletes we surveyed chose their words carefully, and put together a list of 164 total words and phrases to describe their predecessors. And if the terms they use sound like they could be descriptions of Dr. King, you're right.

The most frequently chosen words, named on 11.3 percent of ballots, were "confident," "determined" and "stylish." Next on the list were "inspirational," "athletic," "outspoken" and "strong." Many athletes chose from a list of words best described by this NBA star: "Oh man, that's a tough one. I'll go with courageous, inspirational and stylish. But I could probably come up with a hundred more."

No need, sir: Your colleagues did just that.

T1. Confident, determined, stylish: 11.3 percent each
4. Inspirational: 10.3 percent
5. Athletic: 8.2 percent
T6. Outspoken, strong: 7.2 percent each
8. Courageous: 6.2 percent

ESPN's Morty Ain, Lindsay Berra, Louise Cornetta, Jeff Dooley, David Fleming, Sulaiman Folarin, Jeffrey Martin, Joe Person, Stacey Pressman, Alyssa Roenigk, Don Stewart and Michael Woods all contributed to this report.