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The 2016 ESPY Awards opened Wednesday night with an important message.
Before WWE champion John Cena took the stage to host the annual sports awards ceremony, NBA superstars Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James spoke directly to their fellow athletes to preempt the night of celebration.
“We cannot ignore the realities of the current state of America,” Anthony opened, citing the injustice, distrust and anger the country has experienced in the last week from the shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota to the attack on police in Dallas. “The system is broken.”
He continued: “The problems are not new. The violence is not new. And the racial divide is definitely not new. [But] the urgency to change is at an all-time high.”
Paul, who is the nephew of a police officer, listed the names of many black lives that have been lost — from Trayvon Martin to Alton Sterling — before naming figures like Muhammad Ali who “set a model for what athletes should stand for.”
“The racial profiling has to stop. The shoot-to-kill mentality has to stop. But also, the retaliation has to stop,” said Wade. “The endless gun violence in places like Chicago, Dallas and Orlando — it has to stop. Enough. Enough is enough.”
Acknowledging feelings of helplessness and frustration over the violence, James closed out the introduction by saying: “It’s time to look in the mirror and ask ourselves: What are we doing to create change?”
Calling on his fellow athletes to do the legacies of athletes past, such as Ali’s, justice, he implored the sports community to get educated, explore the issues and use their influence to renounce all violence.
“Let’s use this moment as a call to action,” said James. “We all have to do better.”
According to ABC anchor T.J. Holmes, the athletes approached the network and asked to open the show.
The start of the show was not a network idea. LeBron, Carmelo, CP3, and D-Wade approached the network and asked to open the show. #ESPYS
— T.J. Holmes (@tjholmes) July 14, 2016
The tone of the ceremony followed their lead, as many of the night’s speeches and awards were dedicated to timely issues.
While accepting the annual Arthur Ashe Award for Courage, the mother of Zaevion Dobson, the 15-year-old who was shot and killed while saving three girls, urged athletes to take a stand against gun violence in a powerful speech that brought the room to tears.
While paying tribute to his friend Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar highlighted The Greatest’s legacy, saying he “spoke fearlessly about injustice and he sacrificed tremendously for his principles. At this day in age, at this moment of history, that’s what I hope everyone remembers.”
And the WNBA’s Breanna Stewart called for gender equality in professional sports while accepting the award for best female athlete.
The 2016 ESPYs aired on ABC from the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. See all the winners here and more highlights from the show below.
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