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Locker Room Talk: Courage and inspiration, not protest at The ESPYS

But in the wake of Kaepernick’s protest, who will be the activist athletes?

Last year this time, four of sports’ biggest names used The ESPYS Awards show to promote social change.

In one of the more dramatic moments in The ESPYS’ 25-year history, Chris Paul, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwayne Wade spoke eloquently about the deteriorating relationship between segments of the black community and law enforcement. They spoke about the need for personal responsibility, the need to protest injustice.

I was curious to see whether there would be a sequel to last year’s dramatic presentation.

There was not.

This year’s program was defined by courage and inspiration, not protest.

The ESPYS is a festival of awards, but the program reminds us, amid a rising sea of commercialism, of what we still love about sports.

There were emotional presentations to nonathletes who had overcome spectacular odds. Jarrius Robertson, a 15-year-old who has waged a courageous battle with a rare liver disease, won the Jimmy V Perseverance Award.

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Israel Del Toro, who was nearly killed in Afghanistan in 2005 when his Humvee rolled over a bomb, won the Pat Tillman Award for Service.

The only hint of politics this year was the presence of former first lady Michelle Obama, who presented the Arthur Ashe Courage Award to Timothy Shriver, whose mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founded the Special Olympics.

Since last year’s ESPYS, the personality of the nation has changed. A new administration is in the White House; protest from high-profile stars has been subdued.

Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, was not on The ESPYS stage last year, but he used the subsequent NFL season to launch a silent protest by kneeling during the national anthem.

Kaepernick became a free agent after the season and is still looking for a job. For all their celebrity, players are still players and can be moved around and rearranged like so many chess pieces.

Paul was recently traded from the Los Angeles Clippers and Anthony will likely soon be out of New York. Wade is an aging star who has lost a good deal of his luster.

LeBron is still LeBron. He received the ESPY award as the best NBA player.

What form will resistance and protest assume in the next few years?

Sometimes protest involves simply being an activist within one’s own sport. This often leads to activism outside the arena because the principle of exploitation is similar.

On Wednesday, Richard Sherman, the Seattle Seahawks All-Pro cornerback, gave a poignant, eye-opening red-carpet interview with ESPN analyst Jalen Rose about the need for NFL players to be prepared to fight. Sherman said that players had better be prepared to strike to get what they want — especially much-needed guaranteed contracts.

In the opening hours of NBA free agency earlier this month, free agents agreed to deals worth nearly a billion dollars.

Asked if NFL players might have to consider a strike to get those type of numbers, Sherman said: absolutely.

“If we want as the NFL, as a union, to get anything done, players have to be willing to strike,” Sherman said. “That’s the thing that guys need to 100 percent realize. You’re going to have to miss games, you’re going to have to lose some money if you’re willing to make the point, because that’s how MLB and NBA got it done. They missed games, they struck, they flexed every bit of power they had, and it was awesome. It worked out for them.”

I left Los Angeles this week wondering how the next vanguard of professional athletes will use their visibility and influence.

A quick review of some of the ESPYS award winners yields an impressive list — and global.

  • Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook was named best male athlete;
  • Kevin Durant was awarded an ESPY for best championship performance;
  • Gymnast Simone Biles earned an ESPY as the best female athlete;
  • Candace Parker of the Los Angeles Sparks was voted the best WNBA player;
  • Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott received an ESPY as the breakthrough player of the year;
  • Usain Bolt was recognized as the best international athlete;
  • Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton was voted best driver.

How will these athletes use their celebrity? As James, Paul, Anthony and Wade illustrated at the beginning of last year’s ESPYS, celebrity, used wisely, can be a powerful vehicle for delivering messages.

But as Kaepernick and others have discovered, just as salaries have dramatically soared, the price of protest has risen as well.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” is a writer-at-large for The Undefeated. Contact him at william.rhoden@espn.com.