Who Is More Influential — Jesse Owens or Dwight Eisenhower?

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Sure, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan may have been presidents of the United States. But they would have been really influential if they had helped to break a racial barrier in professional sports.

hat’s one way of interpreting a list of the “100 Most Influential Student-Athletes” released Wednesday by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, as part of its centennial celebration. The top five leans heavily toward leading African-American athletes who became icons of racial integration: Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe, Jesse Owens are Nos. 1, 2 and 3, respectively, followed by Eisenhower and John Wooden, the former basketball coach at the University of California at Los Angeles.

The list, which was drawn up by a committee of college presidents, sports officials, faculty members and current athletes, is, like any such list, likely to be fodder for debate and discussion (to the extent anybody pays attention to it at all, given that the NCAA is releasing it at a time when most people who care about college sports are obsessing over the association’s Division I men’s basketball tournament).

That’s because in seeking to feature “those who have made a significant impact or major contributions to society,” it throws into one big mix people whose primary impact on society has been almost entirely through sports (like Wooden and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the Olympic track star) as well as those best known for civic roles, such as Kofi Annan and Dr. Spock.

That makes for some strange juxtapositions: Althea Gibson, the black female tennis star (No. 6), for instance, followed by Madeleine K. Albright (a swimmer at Wellesley College) at No. 7, and Tiger Woods (No. 13) followed by Gerald R. Ford (a former University of Michigan football player) at 14.

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