LOS ANGELES — Soccer player Megan Rapinoe admonished her fellow athletes for not doing enough to speak up and encouraged them to support detained WNBA star Brittney Griner at ESPYs Wednesday night.
Griner was arrested in Russia in February after customs officials said they found vaporizer bottles containing cannabis oil in her luggage. She faces up to 10 years in prison if she is convicted of drug transportation charges.
“For me, the most striking thing is that BG is not here. BG deserves to be free, she’s being held as a political prisoner, obviously,” Rapinoe said as she accepted a trophy for best play in the show that honors the greatest athletes and sporting moments of the past year.
“What are we doing here dressed like when our sister is detained abroad? We haven’t done enough, none of us. We can do more, we can support her more and let her know that we love her very much.”
Said tennis great Billie Jean King: “First, bring BG home. I have to do that.
Griner pleaded guilty in court and admitted possessing the boats but said he had no criminal intent.
Rapinoe urged her fellow competitors to keep Griner’s face and name on social media.
“Every time we say it in interviews, it puts pressure on everyone,” he said. “It puts pressure on the administration, it puts pressure on Russia, it puts pressure on Putin, it puts pressure on everyone, and it lets BG know as well, above all else, that we love her and that we miss her and that we are thinking of her all the time.”
NBA Finals MVP Stephen Curry hosted the show and was joined by WNBA players Nneka Ogwumike and Skylar Diggins-Smith to draw attention to Griner’s plight.
“It has been 153 nights since BG has been wrongfully detained thousands of miles from her home, from her family, from her friends, from her team,” Diggins-Smith said. “During all that time, we’ve kept her in our thoughts and in our hearts even though we know that’s not enough to bring her home, you guys.”
Wearing Griner’s Phoenix Mercury T-shirt under his tracksuit, Curry noted the effort being made to free Griner.
“But while we hope for the best, we urge the entire global sports community to continue to be energized on his behalf,” he said. “She is one of us, the team of athletes in this room tonight and across the world. A team that has nothing to do with politics or global conflict.”
They were applauded by Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, who was in the audience at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood.
Curry also picked up a trophy for best record-breaking performance, having set the mark for the most 3-pointers in league history. He also shared the best team award with the NBA champion Golden State Warriors.
Los Angeles Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani won the award for best athlete in men’s sports.
“It is an honor to be in the same category as all of you. You are the best at what you do,” said the Japanese player, speaking in English via video. “Have a wonderful everything and enjoy your afterparties.”
Olympic champion swimmer Katie Ledecky won the award for best athlete in women’s sports.
Ledecky won two golds and two silvers at the Tokyo Games last year, giving her 10 career Olympic medals. She received her trophy from Maybelle Blair, the 95-year-old player who played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.
“I represent one of the few sports that is also a very important life skill, so I want to encourage all the parents here, anyone who is watching, to make sure that their children learn to swim,” Ledecky said. “Our planet is 70% water, so it’s very important.”
Former heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko was honored with the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage, for having made an impact on the world beyond sports. Klitschko, mayor of beleaguered Kyiv, Ukraine, since 2014, was not present. He appeared in a recorded video.
King led a tribute to the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the federal legislation that prohibits discrimination based on sex in schools that receive government funds.
She was joined by Lisa Leslie, Brandi Chastain, Chloe Kim, Allyson Felix, Aly Raisman, and Rapinoe, among others. They spoke against a background of black-and-white photos showing female athletes in action, on the field or in the streets advocating for gender equality. His comments were interspersed with country singer Mickey Guyton performing his songs “What you gonna tell him?” and “Remember his name”.
The ESPYS were criticized by South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley for not inviting the consensus player of the year, Aliyah Boston, to the show. Boston had hoped to attend and was disappointed that she was not invited. She was sent a last minute invitation, but she turned it down.
ESPN said COVID-19 concerns and a smaller venue forced organizers to prioritize guests for the show. Boston was nominated in a non-televised category that was awarded the night before. He lost to Oklahoma softball star Jocelyn Alo, who participated in the Title IX tribute.
ESPN college basketball announcer Dick Vitale received the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance. The 83-year-old has undergone multiple melanoma surgeries and six months of chemotherapy for lymphoma in the past year. In March he said that he was cancer free.
Vitale dismissed messages on the teleprompter urging him to wrap up his remarks, which stretched to 20 minutes.
“I’ll be done in about three minutes,” he said huskily. “Jimmy’s dream was to beat cancer. We must do it because he does not discriminate. He comes after all.