Storm rookie Breanna Stewart was known solely for her athleticism, not her activism, but that was about to change.

Share story

You could tell she was nervous as she walked to the stage, and who among us wouldn’t be?

Storm rookie Breanna Stewart was known solely for her athleticism, not her activism, but that was about to change.

When the 21-year-old won the ESPY for Best Female Athlete on Wednesday, she planned to give more than just a cliché thank-you or two. The four-time national champion was going to champion a cause.

“During my time in college, I received much media attention. I am grateful for that,” said Stewart, who won four straight Final Four Most Outstanding Player awards at UConn. “But now that I am in the WNBA, playing with other amazing female athletes, I’m trying to understand why we, as professional female athletes, don’t receive anywhere near the fame. This has to change.”

It doesn’t necessarily matter if you agree with what Stewart said. Gender equality in professional sports is a complicated subject involving a variety of issues.

But for a young woman with no history of social advocacy to put herself out there like that, you have to take a moment to say “bravo.”

“You saw the whole thing about Carmelo (Anthony) talking about athletes using their platform and using their power to do something about it,” Stewart said. “He’s right.”

Muhammad Ali’s death served as a reminder to just how little athletes use their status to promote change in today’s world. There’s too much to lose and too bright a spotlight should they say something that doesn’t land.

And while it’s not as though Stewart’s comments risked national derision by calling for equality for women’s sports, it was still bold to speak out on a matter that will spawn its fair share of detractors.

But Stewart was willing to take that chance, saying she had been working on the speech with her agent before the ESPYs.

She added that she kept her statement intentionally broad “to get people to think.”

She noted how NBA summer-league games are on television but regular-season WNBA games aren’t, then pointed out how the ESPY award for Male Athlete of the Year was sponsored by Grey Goose while her award was sponsor-less.

It wasn’t that Stewart had steam blowing out of her ears — she recognizes that this isn’t a simple topic. But she also recognizes a disparity and feels beholden to try to change that.

“For me, I’m seeing it mostly in the sports world, but you can look at the whole world entirely if you want to,” Stewart said. “The gender gap is there. Why is it there? We’re trying to bridge that gap but there is still something that’s holding us back. And if you put it under the spotlight and constantly bring it up, people are going to think about it more often.”

Perhaps they’ll think about the tangible dearth in female coaches in men’s sports. Maybe they’ll think about the lack of female play-by-play announcers for men’s teams, too.

They might wonder about the sizable pay gap between the U.S. national men’s and women’s soccer teams — which sparked a lawsuit a few months back — or how the Seattle Reign recently played a soccer game on a baseball outfield 58 yards wide.

There are counter arguments to everything, of course, particularly those relating to wage gaps when salaries are based on revenue. But when Minnesota Lynx forward Maya Moore is writing about similar injustices in the Players’ Tribune, and former Storm great Lauren Jackson is lamenting how women’s basketball players don’t have a period in the year when they can rest their bodies, it’s clear there is widespread disappointment.

So Stewart took a stand.

“Equality for all takes each of us making an effort,” she said.

Breanna Stewart made the effort. That’s not easy to do.

Most predicted the rookie would have an immediate impact on the floor upon going pro. Seems she’s just as committed to making one off it.