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ESPYs to highlight social causes as well as sports awards

U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe prepares for a corner kick during a SheBelieves Cup game March 8, 2020, in Harrison, N.J.
U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe is shown during a SheBelieves Cup game March 8 in Harrison, N.J. She will be one of three hosts for the 2020 ESPYs on Sunday night.
(Associated Press)

With few sports to follow amid a global pandemic, ESPN was already planning to shift the focus of the ESPYs awards show this summer. There would be less attention on athletic achievements during the past year and more on service, perseverance and courage in sports.

Then the protests started.

Amid nationwide calls for racial justice, U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe, WNBA standout Sue Bird and Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, this year’s ESPYs hosts, plan to acknowledge the social unrest in the United States during the show that will air Sunday at 6 p.m. Pacific time.

“I think athletes are always at this intersection of culture and race and gender and sexuality,” Rapinoe said on a conference call Tuesday. “I think there’s few better people [besides athletes] to talk about some of the issues we have in our country: the systemic racism, the inequality, how we’re all dealing with COVID. Our lives were all turned upside down with that. It’s a sports show and a sports award show, but I think we have a unique ability to kind of pull all those threads together.”

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The trio will host the show remotely through taped segments filmed in their respective quarantine locations. All are based in the Seattle area. Rapinoe, a winger for the OL Reign of the National Women’s Soccer League, lives with Bird, her girlfriend who has spent her entire 18-year WNBA career with the Storm. Through “fancy TV magic,” Bird said the editing for some segments will make it seem as if Wilson is in the same room.

Despite the lack of a red-carpet event and a star-studded audience, it will still feel like a “big-time show,” Bird added.

This year’s show will be the first with three hosts. Previously, LeBron James teamed with Jimmy Kimmel to host the 2007 edition.

When it came to addressing issues of race and inequality, the three athletes were “all aligned,” Rapinoe said.

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“We’ve had long conversations about it in terms of what we want to accomplish, how we want to accomplish it,” Bird said, “and when you have three people who are aligned in that way, it usually does make for something that’s organic and genuine.”

The sports stars declined to get into specifics about how they will address social issues among handing out the traditional awards. They want to save surprises for the event. Wilson said he will use the show to encourage other athletes to join the conversation.

During an ESPN special on Monday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said he supports and encourages teams to sign quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

The Super Bowl-winning quarterback said the Seahawks players, currently scattered in different areas because of the COVID-19 pandemic, have had conversations about the protests following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died when a police officer pressed a knee to his neck in May. Wilson emphasized the importance of action as protests stretch past two weeks.

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“It’s one thing to listen,” Wilson said. “It’s another thing to act and help and to make a difference.”

Bird recalled in 2016 when WNBA players united to wear black T-shirts in protest after two Black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, were killed by police officers. Four years later, the issue is nearly identical, but Bird said the response can’t just stop with a simple show of unity this time, especially for white athletes.

“You do need to educate yourself. You do need to be aware. You do need to have a level of understanding because that’s how you can continue to have the conversation and that’s how you can show up and that’s how you can continue to move things forward,” Bird said. “Not just the one time where you wear the shirt, but what are you going to do every day after that?”


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