CREDIT: ABC, ESPN

The ESPY Awards are known to blend sports and pop culture seamlessly. But, on Wednesday night, ESPN’s sports awards show included a heavy dose of current events and politics.

Instead of host John Cena kicking off the night with a comedic monologue, NBA stars Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James opened up the ceremony with a heartfelt, poignant statement about the state of race relations and gun violence in the United States.

“The four of us are talking to our fellow athletes with the county watching because we cannot ignore the realities of the current state of America,” Anthony began. “The events of the past week have put a spotlight on the injustice, distrust and anger that have plagued so many of us. The system is broken, the problems are not new, the violence is not new and the racial divide definitely is not new. But, the urgency to create change is at an all-time high.”

“We stand before you as fathers, as sons, husbands, brothers, uncles and in my case, as an African American man and the nephew of a police officer who is one of the hundreds and thousands of great officers serving this country,” Paul added. “But, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Laquon McDonald, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile. This is our reality. Generations ago, those like Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, John Carlos, Tommie Smith, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jim Brown, Billie Jean King, Arthur Ashe and countless others set a model for what athletes should stand for, so we should follow in their footsteps.”

“The racial profiling has to stop,” Wade said. “The shoot-to-kill mentality has to stop. Not seeing the value in black or brown bodies has to stop. But also retaliation has to stop. The end of gun violence in places like Chicago, Dallas, not to mention Orlando, has to stop. Enough. Enough is enough.”

“It’s time to look in the mirror and ask ourselves, What are we doing to make a change?” James concluded. “I know tonight we’ll honor Muhammad Ali, the GOAT. And to do his legacy any justice, let’s use this moment as a call to action for all professional athletes to educate ourselves, explore these issues, speak up, use our influence and renounce all violence.”

According to ABC anchor T.J. Holmes, the players came to ESPN and ABC with the idea for opening.

 

This is not the first time that Anthony, Paul, Wade, and James — all close friends — have spoken up about issues of discrimination, police brutality, and gun violence. James and Wade were part of the Miami Heat team that wore hoodies to honor the death of Trayvon Martin back in 2014.

Just last week, in the wake of the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police and the murders of five officers in Dallas, Anthony posted a passionate message on Instagram, urging his fellow athletes to forget about endorsements and take a stand.

Later in the ESPYs show, Zaevion Dobson was honored with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. Last December, Dobson, a high school football star, sacrificed his own life to shield two girls from gun shots. His mother, Zenobia Dobson, accepted the award on his behalf along with his two brothers.

In her speech, Zenobia advocated for stricter gun control laws.

“We need to rewrite laws make it harder for the people to get guns. Some progress has been made, but just a few months ago in Tennessee a law was passed to allow more people to carry guns on college campuses. What sense does that make? We need to go in the opposite direction.

“All the athletes in this room, you have a lot of power. People look up to you,” she said. “I urge you to think tonight about why he died and what you can do tomorrow to prevent the next innocent young man and woman from being lost as well.”