Three sports legends who have battled racial inequality for decades are set to receive the Sports Illustrated Muhammad Ali Legacy Award.
Recognized for their incredible athletic achievements as well as their social activism, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jim Brown and Bill Russell will be honored at SI‘s Sportsperson of the Year event on Dec. 12.
“In 2016, we learned that the consequences of speaking out on hard issues were often painful ones, but also how deeply athletes can impact and advance the conversation on those same, hard issues. Jim Brown, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar all recognized, and acted on this in a far harder time in America,” says Sports Illustrated Group editor in chief Chris Stone.
“That was the example of their friend, Muhammad Ali, and the torch they’ve carried for the more than a half-century.”
Abdul-Jabbar, 69, says it is especially moving to receive an award named after Muhammad Ali, who was “both a friend and a personal inspiration to me as an athlete and as an activist.”
“It means I am honoring his legacy as a man who defied conventions and courageously risked life and career to making America a land of freedom, equal opportunity and social justice,” he said.
In October, Abdul-Jabbar told PEOPLE that fixing “racial injustices and inequalities” in the U.S. was contingent on people, especially millennials, making time to have conversations.
“I’m concerned about what’s happening in America, it seems we lost the ability to talk to each other and we need to get back to that point. I hope to guide people in the right direction to have a healthy conversation about social injustices in America,” said Abdul-Jabbar, who also shares his thoughts on a country struggling with racism and police brutality in his new book, Writings on the Wall.
Of his award, NFL legend Brown, 80, says he was “deeply touched to be honored for a lifetime spent working to establish common ground and mutual respect for all perspectives and backgrounds.”
Brown, who played nine seasons for the Cleveland Browns, founded the Black Economic Union in 1966 and is the chairman of Amer-I-Can, a foundation for social change. He’s also know for his dedication to improving and impacting the lives of inner-city children and prison inmates.
“I hope that this tribute serves as a symbol of inspiration for all Americans to be champions of social justice,” he says. “This is a proud moment for me, and I am thrilled to be recognized alongside two other transformative athletes with whom I share a long history of activism and friendship, and for whom I have great respect.”
Bill Russell, an Olympic gold medalist and basketball legend, is being recognized for his fight for civil rights. In 1963, he participated in the March of Washington and was a supporter of close friend Muhammad Ali’s anti-Vietnam War stance.
“To be a true influence of positive change in the world often means that you have to stand up against injustice and fight through adversity,” says Russell, 83. “I am honored to be recognized alongside some of the great cultural icons of our time who have used their platforms to fight for civil rights and social justice, regardless of the risk, including my good friend Muhammad Ali to whom the award is dedicated. Our work has just begun.”
Ali’s wife, Lonnie Ali, also recognized the three recipients for their incredible contributions on and off the courts and fields.
“Particular recognition this year goes to Kareem for being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama and Jim for the new statue that sits outside of Cleveland Browns stadium that was dedicated to his achievements with the organization. In times of hardship and adversity, these three remarkable individuals continued to stand up as activists to pave the way for those that followed,” she says.
“I honor you for that and I know Muhammad certainly would be proud that you are receiving the award that bears his name.”