Although ESPN presented more than 35 statues at the ESPY Awards Wednesdy night, there were two overlying themes to the evening: Ali and action.
NBA stars Carmelo Anthony, Lebron James, Chris Paul and Dwayne Wade made a powerful statement on the issues the country is currently facing through social injustice, gun violence and retaliation.
Carmelo Anthony started off by placing light on the recent fatalities. “The system is broken. The problems are not new, the violence is not new and the racial divide is not new, but the urgency to great change is at an all-time high,” he said.
Chris Paul mentioned the names of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Gardner — African American men who died in encounters with police. He also commended the social efforts of past sports champions like Arthur Ashe, Jesse Owens, Billie Jean King to encourage all athletes in the room to take a stand and follow them in their footsteps.
“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. Enough is enough,” Dwayne Wade pleaded. “As athletes it’s on us to challenge each other to do more than what we are already doing in our communities. The conversation cannot stop as our schedules get busy again. It won’t always be convenient, it won’t always be comfortable, but it is necessary.
The idea was something the foursome came to the network with themselves and were greenlighted to open the show with their message.
James wanted to honor the late Muhammad Ali’s legacy by challenging his fellow athletes to exploring issues, renouncing all violence and changing the communities. "To do his legacy any justice, let's use this moment as a call to action for all professional athletes to educate ourselves, explore these issues, speak up, use our influence, and renounce all violence.
Last year, two of the players, Chris Wade and Carmelo Anthony, joined with director Spike Lee to take a stance against gun violence. They partnered with the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety, to speak out about the effect gun violence has had in their lives.
The appearance was a good lead in to a later segment on The Greatest with Kareem Abdul Jabbar who kicked off the tribute to the champ with a touching story of their first encounter 50 years ago when Ali was performing magic tricks for people walking by on Sunset Blvd in Los Angeles.
“That encounter epitomized everything that made Ali the most famous person in the world,” he said. “His showmanship. He just seemed like he was everywhere and most of all his magic. That ability to make the impossible seem real. Every athlete handles fame in their own way. Some people rebel in it, some people aren’t so comfortable it in.”
Jabbar continued, “He spoke fearlessly about injustice and sacrificed tremendously for his principles. In this day in age, at this moment in history, that’s what I hope everyone remembers about Muhammad Ali. We’re never going to see his legs again walking down the street, but I hope his death spurs his successors what truly made him, the greatest.”
Jabbar was followed by an emotional performance by Chance the Rapper, who gave the audience his moving new untitled song, featuring a montage of The Greatest and his voice interspersed with the lyrics.
But possibly the most gripping moment of the night was when the Arthur Ashe Courage Award was given posthumously to Zaevion Dobson, a 15-year-old football player at Fulton High School in Knoxville, Tenn., who shielded two of his friends from gunfire in a gang-related shooting on Dec. 17. The friends were not the intended targets.
Dobson's mother Zenobia and his brothers Zack Dobson and Markastin Taylor were on hand to accept the award on Zaevion's behalf. His mother, too had a message about the culture of violence that has permeated the country.
"I"m here to fight back," she said. "I encourage all of you to join the movement to save innocent lives."