Athleticism Met Altruism at the 2021 ESPY Awards

Bianca Belair attends the 2021 ESPY Awards at Rooftop At Pier 17 on July 10, 2021 in New York City.

Bianca Belair attends the 2021 ESPY Awards at Rooftop At Pier 17 on July 10, 2021 in New York City.

The ESPY Awards may celebrate “the best players, moments, coaches and games in sports,” but many of this year’s Black award winners are equally adept at advocacy and compassion, as evidenced during the ceremony that took place Saturday in New York City, hosted by The Falcon and the Winter Soldier star Anthony Mackie.

For instance, Marcus Rashford may have been on the receiving end of racist vitriol in England on Sunday following the European Championship, but on Saturday, he scored the ESPYs Pat Tillman Award for Service for successfully challenging the UK Parliament to continue providing free school meals to children during the pandemic. As he and his mother explained in a video, the social service is one that enabled him and to get through his own childhood.

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As previously reported by The Root, WNBA star Maya Moore was awarded the Arthur Ashe Courage Award for her work in criminal justice reform, coincidentally on what would have been Ashe’s 78th birthday. Moore was escorted to the stage to receive her award by husband Jonathan Irons, whose wrongful conviction she helped overturn after 22 years.

“These sacrifices we make in sports are great, but I would invite you to see them as just pointers to the sacrifices of life that matter most, the ones that are centered around helping each other live to the fullest,” she said (h/t People magazine). “Sacrificing the power you have to humanize someone else. Power is not meant to be gripped with a clenched fist or to be hoarded. But power is meant to be handled generously so we can thoughtfully empower one another to thrive in our communities for loves’ sake, championing our humanity before our ambitions.”

Several moments in sports history were also honored on Saturday; Sasha Banks and Bianca Belair won Best WWE Moment for making history as the first Black women to be featured at a WrestleMania main event, while Russell Westbrook’s breaking of Oscar Robertson’s 47-year-old triple-double record garnered him Best Record-Breaking Performance. And while Naomi Osaka may have withdrawn from Wimbledon, she not only earned the ESPY for Best Athlete, Women’s Tennis, but also Best Athlete, Women’s Sports. Best Championship Performance? That went to the GOAT of gymnastics, Simone Biles.

Other ESPY-winning Black excellence included:

Best Play: Arizona Cardinals’ Kyler Murray’s ‘Hail Mary’ to DeAndre Hopkins

Best Breakthrough Athlete: LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets

Best College Athlete, Men’s Sports: DeVonta Smith, Alabama football

Best NBA Player: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Best Driver: Lewis Hamilton, F1

While she wasn’t an ESPY winner (yet), one of the evening’s highlights was Mackie’s shoutout to ESPY attendee and 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee Champion Zaila Avant-Garde—also a multiple Guinness World Record-holding athlete in her own right, for the most basketballs dribbled simultaneously, most basketball bounces, and most bounce juggles in one minute.

“I’m most excited tonight because one of my favorite athletes from New Orleans is in the house. Sorry, Drew Brees—you’re old news, all right,” the fellow New Orleanian quipped. “You don’t count no more. I’m talking about the spelling bee champ.

“That’s NOLA’s finest right there, but I’m going to let you pass for being from across that river, though,” Mackie added, alluding to NOLA’s West Bank-East Bank rivalry (h/t SaintsWire). “We don’t got to talk about that.”

For a look at the ESPYS red carpet, see below. You can see the full list of winners on ESPN’s website.

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