Social Justice and Stirring Speeches at ESPYS

By Terrance Turner

July 10, 2021

Tonight’s ESPY Awards celebrated the best in sports. But the ESPYs tonight were about so much more.

Devonta Smith won Best College Athlete; LaMelo Ball won Best Breakthrough Athlete.

Naomi Osaka won Best Female Athlete.

The Jimmy V Award for Courage and Perseverance went to Chris Nikic, the first athlete with Down Syndrome to complete the Ironman triathlon. The punishing event requires competitors to swim 2 miles, bike 112 miles and run for 26. He accepted his award with a funny, inspiring speech that was closed captioned for viewers.

“My speech is on the screen because I have a Down Syndrome accent and I sound like I’m from the Deep South,” he joked. He thanked the Ironman, his family, and the ESPYs before adding another one-liner: “As you can see ladies, I am adorable, single, and available!”

Turning serious, Nikic spoke about the importance of perseverance and self-improvement. “People ask, How did I overcome so many obstacles? Easy,” he said. “I just got 1% better every day.” That’s one part of his plan. “I want to honor God by being the best I can be,” Nikic said. He shared a three-point plan to achieve that: “I get 1% better every day. I work hard. And as Jimmy V said, ‘Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.'” He added: “I don’t do excuses. I don’t quit. People ask: why don’t you quit? Because my dream is bigger than my friggin’ pain.”

DeAndre Hopkins and Kyler Murray won Best Play for their unforgettable Hail Mary last season. (Hopkins accepted the award.) Simone Biles won Best Championship Performance for her achievements in gymnastics; she won a record seventh all-around title last month. (Biles is preparing for Tokyo and couldn’t be there.) But one of the standout moments of the night belonged to Paige Bueckers, who won for Best College Athlete (Women’s Sports).

After thanking God and her family, Bueckers noted, “I’m just a small-town kid with big dreams.” She wanted to show kids that dreams do come true, if you work hard and have faith, she said. Then she paused. “I just had ankle surgery; I’m out of breath, out of shape,” she admitted, to giggles from the audience. And then, Bueckers used the moment in a surprising way.

“As a white woman who leads a Black-led sport, I want to shine a light on Black women; they don’t get the media coverage that they deserve. They’ve given so much to the sport and the community and to society as a whole,” she said. She called for sports media to do a better job of acknowledging the achievements of Black women. At the WNBA awards, Black women won 80% of the awards but only received half the coverage that white players do, she said. “Sports media holds the key to storylines,” Bueckers said. “I think we should use this power together to also celebrate Black women.”

Tom Brady won Best Athlete for leading the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Super Bowl championship. It was the first time ever that an NFL team has won a Super Bowl in its home stadium. Brady’s longtime teammate Rob Gronkowski had to present the award and accept it on his behalf; Brady was not in attendance at the ceremony. “Surprise, surprise. He didn’t show up,” Gronkowski cracked. He introduced a video in which Brady delivered an acceptance speech. Brady thanked his teammates, some of whom were at the ceremony. “Have fun in New York — but not too much fun, ’cause we start football in two weeks,” he noted.

Later that night, the Arthur Ashe Courage Award was presented to a woman who achieved extraordinary things both on and off the court.

She was a four-time WNBA champion with the Minnesota Lynx; she won gold medals in the Olympics. She was the only female basketball player to score in double figures in every single game, Robin Roberts said tonight. But at the height of her WNBA career, Maya Moore walked away from basketball to pursue criminal justice reform.

Moore’s uncle was involved in prison industry; through that work, she met Jonathan Irons. He had been locked up since his teens, when he was sentenced in 1998 to 50 years in prison for a robbery and assault that he denied committing. There was no DNA evidence.

Moore and her family investigated the case themselves, hiring lawyers. What began as an effort to overturn his conviction blossomed into a strong bond between Moore and Irons — and a new purpose. Moore stunned observers and teammates by walking away from basketball, skipping the 2020 WNBA season to focus on getting Irons’ conviction overturned. The effort worked. In March 2020, a Missouri judge vacated the convictions, citing evidence that was “weak and circumstantial at best”. Irons was released on July 1, 2020. Nine days later, he and Moore were married.

Moore’s work earned her the Arthur Ashe Courage Award — on what would’ve been Ashe’s 78th birthday, no less. “Thank you to so many people,” Moore began. “I could spend five minutes just saying thank you.” Though headlines focused on her courage in giving up her illustrious career, Moore said she wanted to talk about a different type of courage — “the courage to love when it’s hard.”

“I’m a creative being, lovingly designed in God’s image,” she declared. That, Moore said, meant she was made with a purpose. Part of that purpose dealt with her nonprofit; her “Win with Justice” campaign works to combat prosecutorial misconduct. She used her speech to remind the audience that they are more than just pro athletes: “We are more than athletes. We are complex, multilayered human beings.”

“As athletes, we have unique power and influence,” she said. “Power is not meant to be gripped with a clenched fist; it’s not meant to be hoarded,” she said. “Power is meant to be handled generously so we can thoughtfully empower each other to thrive in our communities,” she said, “championing our humanity before our ambitions.”

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won Best Team. Tight end Rob Gronkowski gave a rowdy acceptance speech to open the team’s remarks. He remembered what he thought on his first day on the team: “I was like, ‘Damn, s–t, we gt a s–tload of talent, baby,” he recalled. “Coach BA [Bruce Arians] kept saying all year, ‘If we play together, keep sticking together, no one’s gonna beat us. And when we were down, we all stuck together, and we bounced back. And he was right.”

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