The modern American athlete is changing before our very eyes and it has never been clearer than at last night's ESPY awards. The awards started in 1993 as a way to honor the best in sports, and, if we're being completely honest, fill a night on America's first all-sports TV network on the dullest night of the sports year.
However that night turned magical when Jim Valvano gave one of the greatest speeches any man has every given. Riddled by cancer, his friends and family didn't know if he'd make it through the speech. Then, when the lights came on, Valvano came alive. He dove deep into our minds, our hearts and our souls with those magical words "don't give up, don't ever give up."
The 2016 ESPY's might go down as just as memorable thanks to four of the NBA's biggest stars stepping out and sending a message that "enough is enough." Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James started the awards show cold, with Anthony welcoming the audience in Los Angeles and on television and then starting a plea with a similar message to his Instagram post last week. The message was that they, as men of influence thanks to their athletic prowess, must lead the charge for change in their country.
"The system is broken, the problems are not new, the violence is not new, and the racial divide definitely is not new," Anthony said. "But the urgency for change is definitely at an all-time high."
Paul was next, stating that he is proudly the nephew of a police officer who represents the hundreds of thousands of good police officers in this country. In the next breath he exclaimed that the racial profiling must stop. That the shoot to kill mentality must stop. The message was clear. The message was balanced. The message was powerful. He also invoked the names of legends passed, including Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul-Jabar, who were in the audience as well as the late, great Muhammad Ali.
Wade then took the stage, driving home the point with perhaps the most memorable line of the night:
"The racial profiling has to stop. The shoot-to-kill mentality has to stop. Not seeing the value of black and brown bodies has to stop. But also the retaliation has to stop. The endless gun violence in places like Chicago, Dallas, not to mention Orlando, it has to stop. Enough. Enough is enough."
James closed the opening segment with a call to action that all athletes and all people must do better. James is proudly from Akron, Ohio where he's likely spent millions re-investing to the city that he says raised him. He asked that all athletes use their time, influence and resources to give back and rebuild communities to help break the cycles of poverty and violence.
Certainly some people will have a problem with what was said because there are inordinate amount of people in this country who deny the problems we have. The first step to fixing a problem is acknowledging it and it takes those with influence to spread the knowledge of the depth of the issues that exist.
James, Anthony, Paul and Wade are not dumb jocks. These are athletes who have done immense amount of research on these issues, even partnering with politicians as high as The President to help initiate change. These are four men who have been using their influence in a positive manner and are now asking more of themselves and their fellow athletes.
The message was delivered perfectly. It had power. It had conviction. It had empathy. It had knowledge. It had compassion. It had purpose. It was delivered by four men who represent the three biggest markets in America (Anthony - New York, Paul - Los Angeles, Wade - Chicago) and the most famous active athlete on the planet on national, network television.
Athletes have started speaking up over the least year as more and more high profile incidents of racial profiling and gun violence have dominated the news. None have done so on a platform like this because platforms like this don't exist very often. This is why they approached ESPN to ask for it, and kudos to the network for obliging.
What really stood out to me though was that the activism did not stop there. Steph Curry received the first award of the night and immediately commended and thanked James, Wade, Anthony and Paul for their message. He later introduced the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, whose recipient is a victim of gun violence.
The activism expanded beyond race and violence as well. Abby Wambach took time in her speech receiving the icon award to say she is most proud of the fight her team has shown for issues of injustice and inequality, including their current battle for equal pay.
The moment that really drove home that things were changing though was 21 year old Breanna Stewart's acceptance speech for female athlete of the year. She stepped to the microphone and uttered "wow, this is a lot of people" before composing herself and thanking ESPN and the media for all the coverage she received at UConn, where she won four straight national titles. She then wondered why as she moved to the WNBA, where the best of the best women in the world play basketball, she doesn't receive the same attention.
As she spoke, and received raucous applause from the audience, it became clear the modern athlete is changing before our very eyes.
After years of silence from athletes following the era of Brown, Ali and others in the 1960's and 70's, athletes are again speaking out. The thought that "Republicans buy sneakers, too" as once said by Michael Jordan would be met with scorn now. Fear of political backlash (on either side of the aisle; this isn't a shot at Republicans, merely the quote that Jordan had) is no longer seen as a valid excuse. The problems run too deep. If a modern athlete has something to say, he or she feels empowered to speak out, and they are in mass.
This makes a lot of people uncomfortable. They like their sports in a bubble. Sports is, after all, a great escape from the world's problems for so many people. However what sports, and the athletes that play them, have realized is that instead of being merely an escape, they might just have the power to help eliminate some of those problems.
Now we wait to see how the experiment goes. Will these athletes follow through on their promise? Hopefully we do more than just wait, and join them in the fight in whatever ways we can. Their calls to action are about more than fellow athletes. They're meant to inspire all of us. In the end, change comes down to all of us. It comes down to how we treat each other on a day-to-day basis and those micro interactions make up the whole of the situation.
Watching Anthony, James, Wade, Paul, Wambach and Stewart last night left me inspired. It also left me proud.
One of my best friends growing up always used to yell at me because she would say "you're wasting your brain on sports!" Stephanie was, and is not like a sports hater by any means. She loves sports and we still talk about them frequently. She just couldn't believe that I, who excelled in school with minimal effort (yeah, I was that kid...sorry), spent so much of my time and energy on something that seemed so meaningless.
What those athletes did was remind us that sports aren't meaningless. The games themselves, in a vacuum, are. However the platforms are massive and the ability to connect people is unique. That makes me proud to be in the world of sports and gives me hope that my world can help move our world forward.
The ESPY's may have started as a lofty dream to "honor those that inspire us in the world of sports." In 2016, it undoubtedly reached that reality.