Hair has long been a way for Black athletes to convey their personality. For those in team sports, hair can be a means to stand out beyond the name on their jersey. For players in solo sports, hair can help define the icon who combines skills and style in one memorable package. And while the rules of attire are typically rigid in professional sports, Black athletes have used their hair to be defiantly creative, expressing their cultural background, their self-esteem and even their daily moods.
Whether seen on-screen, courtside or from the nosebleed seats, these are some of the most recognizable Black hairstyles in sports history.
Venus and Serena Williams’ beaded braids
Venus and Serena Williams made beaded braids their signature in the 1990s and early 2000s. They were Black wunderkinds with style in the predominantly white world of tennis. In time, they would rack up 30 Grand Slam singles titles and dozens of doubles titles between them, rocking all sorts of braid and ponytail variations.
Dennis Rodman’s dyed ’do
Dennis Rodman has some of the most famous hair follicles in American history, truth be told. At the height of his NBA career in the 1990s, he routinely got liberal with the hair dye, wearing a fade or cropped Afro in green, red, blond and other colors. In basketball ― honestly, in life ― Rodman has had a reputation for freewheeling. His hair has been a visual representation of that.
Odell Beckham Jr.’s mohawk
Odell Beckham Jr. achieved iconic hair status while playing a sport with a helmet. Think about that.
Beckham entered the NFL with a mohawk ― a fairly standard cut for young Black men in the mid-2010s. But the mohawk evolved when he dyed its tips blond and teased it a little. Let’s call it “The Odell Bouffant.”
Colin Kaepernick’s Afro
Colin Kaepernick went through a hair journey before growing the Afro that he is known for today. He entered the NFL in 2011 wearing a fade, rocked a crisp line-up in the 2013 Super Bowl and began growing his hair out in 2015. He spent the 2016 season alternating between the ’fro and cornrows.
The appearance of Kaepernick’s Afro coincided with a time in his life when he began responding to the injustice he saw in the world. It’s not clear whether his hair and his political consciousness were linked, as is true of some Black journeys. Let’s all just appreciate the memory of a Black quarterback running beneath the golden sun, Afro tufts peeking from his helmet.
Allen Iverson’s cornrows
Allen Iverson is a cornrow connoisseur and his braided locks are the most recognizable hairstyle in NBA history. A.I. spent the early years of his career wearing fades and short, cropped Afros. He donned his signature braids in 1998, sporting various patterns for almost the entirety of his career. Ultimately and admirably, he wore cornrows in three different decades.
Gabby Douglas’ slicked-back ponytail
In 2012, Gabby Douglas became the first American gymnast to win the individual all-around and team events at the same Olympics. But lots of people were focused on criticizing the 16-year-old’s edges and ponytail.
“I just made history. And you’re focusing on my hair?” Douglas said at the time.
Not every Black hairdo is intended to be revolutionary. Black people don’t exist solely as counterweights to whiteness, which is to say all kinds of Black people make hair decisions for all sorts of reasons, including beauty and functionality. Douglas’ sleek ponytail was befitting for a gymnast yet it still drew an insane level of ire from people around the world.
And although Douglas’ hair wasn’t meant as a political statement, it became one as the gymnast ascended to her place among the greatest Olympic athletes ever. On the biggest stage possible, she wore her hair as it grew from the root. For any Black American, there is a powerful audacity in existing — proudly and excellently — as our Black selves. Douglas’ ability to do that placed her firmly into Black hair history.
Deion Sanders’ Jheri curl
Deion Sanders began racking up football victories while sporting a richly activated Jheri curl. Over his long and impressive NFL career, he would become a Black headwear pioneer, helping popularize the bandana as a fashion accessory.
Sanders played professional baseball, too, and his forays in and out of the major leagues brought all sorts of new hairstyles. He settled on a relatively modest fade toward the end of his playing days.
Michael Jordan’s bald head
Michael Jordan is arguably the most famous bald man who has ever lived. (Global superstardom will do that.) And he has been credited as the archetype for bald, stylish Black men.
Jordan actually entered the NBA with a fade but, with a little push from Mother Nature, started shaving it all off in 1989.
Yannick Noah’s dreads
Yannick Noah, the first Black man to win the French Open singles championship, introduced dreadlocks to the world of international tennis, sporting the dreads and a short Afro during his time on the circuit. He’s also the father of NBA player Joakim Noah, a hair pioneer in his own right.
James Harden’s beard
James Harden’s beard is his brand. “The Beard” is literally the NBA star’s nickname. Silhouettes of his face are distributed as promotional materials, and he has said he’d consider cutting it for no less than $10 million. Harden wore his beard short in college but grew it out after entering the NBA in 2009.
Althea Gibson’s curls
Althea Gibson ― Harlem’s Own Althea Gibson ― was the first African American to win a Grand Slam title in tennis, capturing the French Open in 1956. The following year she was the first Black person to win singles’ titles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open (then called the U.S. Nationals).
For some years, Gibson and her short curls were the image of Black success in the world of tennis. Any hair resting atop the person who achieved all that was historic by association.
Muhammad Ali’s high-top
On his path to becoming arguably the most recognizable athlete of all time, Muhammad Ali never strayed from his two signature hairdos: the high-top fade and the cropped Afro. Ali twice reigned as the heavyweight boxing champion while powerfully speaking out against racial injustice and for Black pride.
Florence Griffith Joyner’s long tresses
Florence Griffith Joyner was a hair-and-nail technician before winning three gold medals at the 1988 Olympics, so she came to show on the global stage. Though style-wise she may be best known for her fly outfits and accessories, Flo-Jo’s hair history was just as luxurious. The sprint queen wore a variety of bobs and perms throughout her reign, and she famously incorporated a mullet into her hair repertoire as well. Flo-Jo was a Black beauty pioneer who encouraged Black athletes to believe they didn’t need to sacrifice their style on the track or the field.
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