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Breanna Stewart, MVP and athlete activist

The WNBA’s most valuable player is using her platform to speak out against sexual abuse

If you watched Breanna Stewart play this season, you might have noticed something different about her.

Sure, she was the same versatile weapon she’s always been, but she took her play to another level. She averaged 21.8 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.4 blocks, which helped her lock up the league MVP award on Sunday.

But it was how she played that was so noticeable. She was freer. Lighter. More confident. Self-assured.

Last October, well before this WNBA season began, Stewart wrote an essay for The Players’ Tribune in which she detailed the sexual abuse she suffered from ages 9 to 11.

It was courageous, bold and scary.

It also was the best decision she’s ever made.

And life hasn’t been the same. In a good way.

“A weight was lifted that I wasn’t fully aware of was there,” Stewart said.

She turned 24 on Monday, and while she’s still barely scratching the surface of her potential, it’s delightful to watch Stewart evolve so quickly as both a player and a person.

She’s found her voice and, perhaps, her calling to speak for those who are most vulnerable in our society. Besides being outspoken about sexual abuse, Stewart also participated in a massive protest at the Los Angeles International Airport last year. The protest was against the president’s travel ban, which many felt unfairly targeted Muslim countries.

So I had to ask her: How does it feel to be described as woke?

Stewart chuckled, at first.

“I think it’s fitting,” she said. “It’s just being aware of things.”

Sometimes, the personal evolution of a great player doesn’t take place until later in their career — if at all. Nobody remembers when LeBron James wasn’t so woke, but he got there.

In 2007, a 22-year-old LeBron was asked before his first NBA semifinal playoff series how he felt about the ongoing genocide in Darfur, since his teammate, Ira Newble, had drafted an open letter to the Chinese government chastising the country for supplying the oppressive Sudanese government with money and weapons that led to the deaths of an estimated half-million civilians.

With the 2008 Olympics in Beijing looming, that seemed like a perfect opportunity for someone of James’ stature to apply his burgeoning power. But James and then-teammate Damon Jones, who reportedly had a shoe deal with an upstart Chinese shoe company, were the only two Cleveland Cavaliers who did not sign Newble’s letter.

It was a bad moment for James, but it’s a moment that makes his outspokenness today even that much more remarkable. It took James some time to figure out who he was, what he believed in and how to use his platform. That’s no knock on James, who constructed the definitive blueprint for how today’s athletes can wield their power, but it goes to show you how tricky it can be for athletes to navigate the complex waters of social justice, especially when they’re considered to be the best in their sport.

A key piece in the growth is knowing what you don’t know. So while it was commendable that Stewart shared her experiences as a survivor, perhaps the best thing she did was realize that while other survivors were drawn to her and could relate, she couldn’t personally fix anyone.

So Stewart actively partnered with RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) to help steer survivors toward the appropriate resources.

Stewart has a T-shirt for sale through RAINN, where the proceeds benefit the organization. She has worn sneakers that featured the phone number for RAINN’s crisis hotline that were auctioned off to further funnel proceeds to RAINN.

Additionally, Red Bull Media recently released a short documentary on Stewart that is meant not only to celebrate Stewart as a complete basketball player but also further stamp her arrival as a spokesperson.

“It’s hard for one person to handle all of this,” she said. “I needed to partner with someone who can give people the help I can’t give them.”

Here’s something else we can learn from LeBron James’ journey: It makes a big difference when the best player in the game is also among the most outspoken. And keeping it all the way real, it makes an even broader impact if that player is white.

“I feel like I’m just someone who is standing up for the things I believe in, which I guess, by definition, makes me an activist,” Stewart said. “Everybody thinks you’re a great basketball player, but then that goes away. Being a survivor of sexual abuse is going to be with me forever.”

Jemele Hill is a Senior Correspondent and Columnist for ESPN and The Undefeated.