On Wednesday night, some of the most celebrated athletes and entertainers converged at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles to celebrate the year that was in professional sports at the 2019 ESPY Awards.
Prior to the awards, there were plenty of celebrity sightings to be had on the red carpet. Ciara and her beau Russell Wilson dazzled in matching black ensembles; rookie phenom Zion Williamson waded through throngs of admirers; and New England Patriots linebacker Elandon Roberts could put Harry Winston out of business with the gargantuan Super Bowl rings he was toting around.
But of all the red carpet interviews that took place, one of the most riveting conversations I had the pleasure to partake in was with the self-proclaimed “Yoncé of Softball,” 2016 Rally Spike Award winner AJ Andrews, who sidestepped personal accolades and instead opined on the unheralded role women occupy in sports.
“I don’t feel like we get our due, at least not to the extent that we should,” she began. “I think 2018 was really the start of us saying, ‘No.’ And this is how we’re gonna get things done. You’re gonna respect us. You’ll learn to respect us and recognize our talent.”
She then praised Megan Rapinoe and Serena Williams for leading the charge to break both records and boundaries before adding, “You just have a lot of different women trying to make a way for everyone else. They try to downplay our talent, but that’s complete B.S.”
In being the first woman to win a Gold Glove in 2016, Andrews knows a thing or two about her accolades being diminished in the public eye, especially considering she received a fragment of the fanfare her male counterparts do for achieving similar feats. And even though the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team concluded this year’s ESPYs by being crowned Best Team, their triumphs come as many continue to criticize the pay disparity between women and men in sports—something they used their World Cup championship parade earlier in the day to advocate for.
Outside of providing athletes with a platform to address inequality and other issues that permeate professional sports since its debut in 1993, the ESPYs—which fall on one of only two days a year where no professional sports games are played—serve to celebrate our favorite athletes and their remarkable feats throughout the past year, as well as honor the competitors and pioneers who preceded them.
This year’s host was comedian Tracy Morgan, who languished throughout the evening delivering stale punchlines and unwelcomed skits—a far cry from the glory days of Drake’s 2014 stint as the master of ceremonies, or even two-time Super Bowl champion Peyton Manning in 2017. Thankfully, there was plenty of black excellence elsewhere to both appreciate, admire, and indulge in.
ESPN prides itself on its ability to not only reel in big names to appear on the network’s countless television shows, but to present its awards, and this year’s ESPYs were no exception. Cleveland Browns receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and Gabrielle Union joined forces to crown New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley the Best Breakthrough Athlete, and All-Pro linebacker Von Miller christened Duke alumnus Zion Williamson the Best College Athlete.
“I love Duke. I wish I could’ve stayed a second year, but I had other things to do,” Williamson joked to the delight of the crowd. With his win, the 19-year-old phenom became the first Duke athlete to ever win that award.
Other presenters throughout the evening included Migos, who presented Best Record-Breaking Performance; as well as Usher, Russell Wilson and Ciara, who presented the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance to high school football coach Rob Mendez—who was born without limbs.
Dwyane Wade, who recently retired in April, was honored for his stellar 16 years in the NBA. After showering his wife Gabrielle Union with praise and professing that he “can’t wait” to marry her again in the future, he touched on his legacy and the importance of using his platform as an impetus for change.
“Sports have given us this platform,” he said. “Recognize your power. Use it to better your communities and continue to fight for change.”
To that end, one of the most powerful moments of the night came when Kobe Bryant presented NBA legend Bill Russell with the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage. Before accepting the award, the 11-time NBA champion was treated to a video tribute featuring Samuel L. Jackson and our forever president Barack Obama, who detailed the obstacles Russell faced as a black basketball player in the 50's and 60's.
“Bill’s dissatisfaction with the injustices of the world never changed,” Bryant said. “Bill has led the way that inspires all of us—the next generation—to follow his lead.”
Tori Kelly then took the stage and honored the 85-year-old icon with a performance of Mavis Staples’ “In Times Like These.”
All in all, the 2019 ESPYs were a moving tribute to the past, present and future of professional sports.
For a full list of winners, visit ESPN.