ESPY Awards: Stars, Athletes Call for Equality in Sports, Better Pay for Women

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Megan Rapinoe and the U.S. women's national soccer team accept the ESPY for best team.

The show highlighted the year's achievements in sports, such as the U.S. women's national soccer team's World Cup win, while former President Barack Obama, Kobe Bryant and more honored Bill Russell.

Wednesday night's ESPY Awards, hosted by Tracy Morgan, honored athletes and highlighted issues like equal pay in sports, leaning into last week's World Cup win by the U.S. women's national soccer team, when fans in the stadium showed their support by chanting, "Equal pay! Equal pay!"

NBA star Dwight Howard of the Memphis Grizzlies told The Hollywood Reporter on the carpet outside Los Angeles' Microsoft Theater that "there is always something to inspire and bring us together" in regards to the women's soccer team World Cup win, and ESPN "has brought so many people together along the years."

The winner of the Pat Tillman Award for Service, Marine Corps veteran Kirstie Ennis, whose leg was amputated after an injury in Afghanistan, said the women's World Cup team is "uncharted territory. They are going out and doing huge things. There are a lot of young people watching them. It's a movement now." Comparing the challenges women face in sports to those in the military, she observed: "Just like sports, the military is very much a man's world. It is about putting your foot down and saying, 'Hey, this is what I deserve,' and getting women into higher-up roles.”

Jim Calhoun, who was honored as coach of the year, said that the movement the women are creating is "extremely special" and "politically, I'm on their side." He added that his philosophy for a successful team of players is much like any Hollywood director: "Seeing what Lin-Manuel Miranda does — if they don’t have good actors, their words mean nothing. These are good actors."

Katelyn Ohashi, the UCLA gymnast who won best moment and best viral video, told THR on the red carpet that "unfortunately, it is males watching sports. We do not get acknowledged for being anything but our bodies" in regards to the inequality for women in sports. Her acceptance speech for the best moment ESPY also included rhymed lines about viral video fame, body-shaming and standing up against sexual abuse, a reference to the scandal involving USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar.

Sandra Bullock, who presented the best team ESPY to the World Cup soccer champions, also spoke up about equality for female athletes onstage: "All those in favor of equal pay, say aye," she said, handing the microphone off to team co-captain Carli Lloyd.

The soccer team, who flew in directly from the World Cup Finals victory parade in New York City earlier on Wednesday, entered the show during a commercial break, getting a standing ovation upon their arrival into the theater and applause whenever mentioned.

Megan Rapinoe, who has been outspoken about the issue of equal pay, took to the mic after Lloyd. "I've dropped the F-bomb on every stage I've been on for the past three days. So we'll spare you," she joked of the various TV interviews she's given recently in which she didn't censor herself.

Additionally, Bill Russell, who received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, gained a standing ovation for his lifetime of fighting for civil rights. The award has previously gone to individuals like Muhammad Ali, Caitlyn Jenner and Billie Jean King. He did not give a speech, but Kobe Bryant presented the award, and a video montage depicting Russell's featured interviews with former President Barack Obama, Samuel L. Jackson, John Thompson Jr. and THR columnist Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Rob Mendez, the recipient of the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance, and a coach with tetra-amelia syndrome, a rare disorder that caused him to be born without arms or legs, said in his speech that "it is very humbling" to be receiving the honor among "athletes I've watched for years like Bill Russell." He also praised ESPN, which first launched and aired the awards ceremony before it moved to ABC in 2015: "ESPN recognizes all the differences there are. ESPN has forever changed my life by putting my story out there among these athletes."