Anthony spoke first, which might not have been by coincidence, considering he has been among the more prominent athletes to make his voice heard following the much-publicized killings last week of two black men by police and the subsequent gunning down of five officers during a protest in Dallas. The Knicks forward had previously posted an impassioned message to his Instagram account and written an essay that was published by the Guardian earlier Wednesday.
“In this moment of celebration, we have to start the show tonight this way: The four of us are talking to our fellow athletes, with the country watching, because we cannot ignore the realities of the current state of America,” Anthony told the audience of sports luminaries and others at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. “The events of the past week have put a spotlight on the injustice, distrust and anger that plague so many of us.
“The system is broken,” Anthony continued. “The problems are not new, the violence is not new and the racial divide definitely is not new. But the urgency to great change is at an all-time high.”
Paul then said the quartet was standing together to “be the change we need to see.” He described himself as “an African American man and the nephew of a police officer, who is one of the hundreds of thousands of great officers serving this country.” The Clippers guard named several black men killed in high-profile deaths in the past few years, including Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, who were killed last week, saying “this is also our reality.”
Wade said, “The racial profiling has to stop. The shoot-to-kill mentality has to stop. Not seeing the value in black and brown bodies has to stop. But also, the retaliation — has to stop. The endless gun violence, in places like Chicago, Dallas, not to mention Orlando, it has to stop. Enough is enough.”
James went last, and he told the audience, “We all feel helpless and frustrated by the violence, we do. But that’s not acceptable. It’s time to look in the mirror and ask ourselves, ‘What are we doing to create change?’ ”
James said that in order to do justice to the legacy of Muhammad Ali, who died earlier in the year and was being honored at the ESPYs, he and his fellow athletes had to “use this moment as a call to action,” including the need to “renounce all violence” and help rebuild their communities. He concluded with, “We all have to do better. Thank you.”
The remarks by James, Wade, Anthony and Paul, who are close friends, drew a mix of praise and criticism online, consistent with the national debate about the killings and roles of police and the Black Lives Matter movement. ESPN’s Facebook page, where the network posted a link to the opening of the ESPYs, quickly filled with hundreds of comments:
The NBA players’ statements came on the heels of those made by some WNBA players over the weekend. Before a game Saturday, members of the Minnesota Lynx offered comments at a news conference and wore shirts with a phrase calling for change, as well as the names of Sterling and Castile, the logo for the Dallas Police Department and the words “Black Lives Matter.” That prompted four off-duty police officers who had been helping provide security to walk off the job, actions that earned praise from their union chief but a rebuke from the mayor of Minneapolis.
Elsewhere, members of the New York Liberty wore pre-game shirts with with “#BlackLivesMatter” and “#Dallas5″ on them, while the Los Angeles Sparks displayed the message “All Lives Matter” on arena video screens during a game Sunday. In 2014, James and other NBA stars wore shirts bearing the phrase “I can’t breathe” to protest the death of a black man, Eric Garner, by New York police.