Russell Wilson, Megan Rapinoe open ESPYS with call for action against racial injustice

Jack Baer
Writer

The 2020 ESPYS — aired remotely and a month earlier than usual due to the coronavirus pandemic — opened with a message that might have shocked observers just a few months ago.

Featuring co-hosts Russell Wilson, Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird, the intro started by invoking the names of Jackie Robinson, Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali and Serena Williams, then moved onto a few more names, like George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.

All three athletes called on the sports world, especially white athletes, to continue pushing for change in the wake of Floyd’s killing.

The segment ended with the trio essentially saying the return of sports should be used as a platform for change.

Such a message is quite the departure for a network that, under president Jimmy Pitaro, made a conscious effort in recent years to avoid any political discussion that doesn’t have an explicit connection to sports. It was a policy designed to avoid controversy even if meant suppressing the opinions of many of its own employees and rewarding the “Shut up and dribble” contingent of American commentary.

Now, one of the network’s flagship events is opening with messages that include the following.

Wilson:

“As millions of people of all colors protest, I see a world of hurt, pain and despair. But I also see a new generation. A generation that is calling out in desperate need for lasting change. To my white teammates and friends, we need you to lead, too. Don’t just listen. Help.”

Rapinoe:

“For centuries, there have been fights for justice and equality in this country, led by Black people. This movement is no different, but as white people, this is the breaking point. This time, we’ve got to have their backs.”

Bird:

“Trust us, we know that sports are important. It’s why we’re gathered here tonight. But do Black lives matter to you when they’re not throwing touchdowns, grabbing rebounds, serving aces? If that was uncomfortable to hear, good. I used to shy away from moments like this because it’s convenient to be quiet. To be thought of as safe and polite. Colin Kaepernick never shied away. He knew that discomfort was essential to liberation and that fighting the oppression against Black people is bigger than sports.”

ESPN found a new voice for its awards show after the killing of George Floyd. (Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)

The show wasn’t done with its commentary after the intro either, as it also aired a segment of several figures in the sports world calling for change, including Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban pledging to use his resources to help Black and brown business owners get better access to capital:

Bird and Rapinoe later appeared in T-shirts featuring Floyd’s initials and were reported to have used Black designers for the event.

Quite the shift, especially for one woman who exited the network amid political blowback just two years ago.

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