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ESPYS hosts Sue Bird, Megan Rapinoe relish opportunity to deal with social issues

Sue Bird (L) of the Seattle Storm and

Sue Bird (L) of the Seattle Storm and soccer player Megan Rapinoe attend the WNBA All-Star Game 2019 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on July 27, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Credit: Getty Images/Ethan Miller

Sue Bird called it a “huge honor” to be hosting this year’s ESPYS, a role previously occupied by a wide assortment of athletes, actors, comedians and musicians.

That is not only because of the show’s history, but also because of the unique circumstances of this year’s edition, premiering on ESPN at 9 p.m. on Sunday.

For the first time, it will be produced virtually, with Bird and the other hosts, Megan Rapinoe and Russell Wilson, recording from their homes in Seattle, while guests appear from points elsewhere.

It also will be an edition that incorporates more than ever issues outside sports, including two that have roiled the nation this spring: the COVID-19 pandemic and the fight against systemic racism.

As ESPN put it in a news release, the show is “shifting its focus from outstanding athletic achievement to further highlight narratives of service, perseverance, and courage within the world of sports.”

“All of us are going through so much right now, and that’s what’s going to make these ESPYS that much more special,” said Bird, who is from Syosset and has played for the WNBA’s Seattle Storm since 2002.

She said the show will celebrate sports as it always does, feature an array of stars and seek to entertain, but that the mission is larger than that.“

For me, personally,” she said, “it’s really exciting to be someone who can come into everybody’s living room and can help provide that fun aspect, that inspirational aspect, to focus on sports, but listen, there is a lot more going on right now that we’re also going to touch on.”

Rapinoe, a soccer star on the U.S. national women’s team, is among the most politically outspoken athletes in the country, so she seems well-suited to the occasion.

She is Bird’s girlfriend, and the two have been quarantined together during the pandemic and thus were able to shoot much of their material in the same room.

“And I think they’re going to do some of their fancy TV magic to make it look like at some points the three of us are in the same room,” Bird said, referring to Wilson, the Seahawks’ quarterback.“We shot where we were, but it still very much had the feel of a big-time show and you could sense the weight of a big-time show, and that’s what’s so exciting about it.”

Rapinoe, who joined the other hosts on a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, hopes for a big audience.

“First of all, let’s be honest: We know you’re not watching anything else,” she said. “You haven’t seen your sports stars that are normally in the position of entertaining you at this time of year.”

Rapinoe said athletes are like everyone else, having had their lives upended in recent months, “but I think [viewers] can sort of watch us and join us and share in this moment with us.”

Said Bird, “The best part is the three of us really do see eye-to-eye in terms of what we want to accomplish and how we want to accomplish it.”

Rapinoe stirred controversy in 2016 when she kneeled during the pregame national anthem in solidarity with the 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick, who had begun doing so to protest racial inequality and the treatment of blacks by law enforcement officials.

What did she think of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell admitting this month that the NFL was wrong not to listen to its players on that issue earlier, and then Monday night on ESPN mentioning Kaepernick by name and encouraging a team to sign him?

“They are learning on a very slow curve, but they are hopefully learning nonetheless,” she said.

Later, she added, “I think the NFL, a lot of people thought they were doing the wrong thing when they did it and clearly they’ve come to that conclusion and now it’s about doing the work.

“Having Roger Goodell even just say Colin Kaepernick’s name is important. It’s important that he’s showing that support. It’s important that he’s saying that. It’s important that after the first statement they put out and after the outcry about that, it’s important he went back and said something different.”

But Rapinoe said the key for the NFL and every other organization and individual that has expressed support and concern is to follow that up with action.

Bird recalled how in 2016 she and her Storm teammates posted a picture of them wearing black T-shirts to protest other teams getting fined for wearing “Black Lives Matter” shirts.

“I think about that, and of course I’m going to stand by my teammates,” she said. “Now, I think as a white athlete it has to go further than that. It can’t be that you just show up, wear the T-shirt and say that you support.”

Wilson talked about how the co-hosts can deliver a message.

"We’ll definitely acknowledge [recent events] in a really powerful way, I believe,” Wilson said. “As athletes we’re blessed being able to play the game but also change culture and help influence and impact, and hopefully we get to do that with this year’s ESPYS.”

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