The Institute for Sport and Social Justice (Institute) is proud to announce the 2021 Giant Steps Virtual Gala scheduled to air Wednesday, December 1, 7:00 p.m. E.T. Giant Steps honorees are made up of a group of diverse individuals from the world of sport who have shown courage, heroism, triumph in the midst of adversity and community activism through the power of sport.

This year’s honorees, whose bios are below, include Courageous Student-Athletes, Paul Scott, Rebel Hays, and Gia Hodges; Civic Leader, Renee Hess; Barrier Breaker, Chris Nikic; Coaches Stephanie Marquardt and James Bailey; A Hero Among Us, Carmelo Anthony; and the recipient of the first-ever President’s Award for Social Advocacy, the WNBA.

Tiffany Greene, ESPN, Play-by-Play Commentator will be this year’s Gala Host. For registration information, please visit https://hopin.com/events/2021-giant-steps-virtual-gala/registration.

For more than 35 years, the Institute has used the power of sport to help create a society free from bias, discrimination, violence, and oppression. They are pioneers in creating cutting edge education programs that address some of the most difficult issues we face in society today. Our world-renowned programs Huddle Up to End Gender Violence and Huddle Up for Equity and Social Justice have seen vastly increased demands after the murder of George Floyd during the racial reckoning. In addition, the Institute hosts the Invisible Women in Sport (IWIS) series featuring interviews with some of the top women in the world of sport.

Giant Steps honorees are chosen in conjunction with National STUDENT-Athlete Day, celebrated annually on April 6th.  National STUDENT-Athlete Day honors high school and college student-athletes who have achieved excellence in academics and athletics, while contributing to their communities. Since its inception, over 4.4 million student-athletes have been recognized

2021 Giant Steps Honorees:

Carmelo Anthony, A Hero Among Us

Ten-time NBA All-Star, entrepreneur and philanthropist, Carmelo Anthony has led a storied career as both a three-time Olympic gold medalist and top-ten NBA all-time scorer. His legacy on the court continues today with the Los Angeles Lakers, but Anthony’s incredible career has also paved the way for his many other brands, business ventures, and philanthropic efforts on a global platform. Lesser known, are the seemingly immeasurable odds the All-Star overcame growing up amidst poverty, racism, violence, mental illness, and a broken education system. His recently released New York Times best selling memoir, “Where Tomorrows Aren’t Promised,” details the never-before-heard stories of his upbringing and how his roots propel his passion for giving back to those who need it most. 

In 2005, he founded The Carmelo Anthony Foundation as a vehicle for community impact through a variety of outreach programs, disaster relief initiatives, and donations. Today, Anthony remains a leading voice pushing for actionable change, and was named the inaugural winner of the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Champion Award this past summer for his dedication to pursuing social justice and equality for all.

Paul Scott and Rebel Hays, Courageous Student-Athletes

Rebel Hays and Paul Scott were 7 and 13 respectively when they began running together. Their first race was challenging, but by the end of the season Hays was guiding Scott through the mud. Scott happens to be visually impaired, and Hays is a guide runner who leads him through his cross-country races.

This is the last year Scott and Hays will be able to run together. Scott has aged out of his high school career, but the duo has had a successful season, finishing as conference champs and one of the top nine that get to run at states.

The two don’t have to think twice about racing. It comes natural to them. They have built a trust through talking, playing cards and rubrics cube. Hays trained with Scott’s team most of the summer, but now that he is in middle school, he can train with the junior high team.

During Scott’s eight grade year, the two were running junior high races on two-mile courses. When training for the Conference Meet, the last race of the year Scott’s goal was to finish in the top 15, but he came in 13.

The boys had been running in the junior high level but were told they had to move up. The two said yes without a thought and within only a few days were racing in 5K races.

Gia Hodges, Courageous Student-Athlete

As a University of Tennessee (UT) rower, Gia Hodges made her presence known through academics and her incredible positive attitude that was contagious among her teammates. But Hodges’ path to get to Tennessee was not easy.

Hodge’s family has been fractured in various ways: divorce, violence, emotional torment, addiction and neurological disease. Hodges’ biological father struggles with addiction, while her adoptive father lives with an extremely rare, neuromuscular disease. The impacts of her adoptive fathers’ diseases are both physical and emotional. Since her adoptive father’s diagnosis, she instantly took on a role in life that most children would never have to even consider — she became a caretaker. Soon, that caretaker role extended to her biological father who was placed into a medically induced coma in Knoxville. She was now the power of attorney to both of her fathers.

Despite these unimaginable challenges and responsibilities, Hodges excelled in the classroom, majoring in neuroscience and psychology. Currently, Hodges attends Quillen College of Medicine

Renee Hess, Civic Leader

Renee Hess founded The Black Girl Hockey Club (BGHC) in 2018. The mission of BGHC is to inspire and sustain passion for the game of hockey within the black community, specifically with our mothers, sisters, daughters, and friends.  In the face of institutional racism, financial gatekeeping, and program access, BGHC aims to prevent exclusion in hockey based on race, gender, sexuality or ability.

BGHC announced their GET UNCOMFORTABLE CAMPAIGN; A pledge to disrupt racism on and off the ice and make hockey more welcoming for EVERYONE. The Club provides education, scholarship opportunities, and community spaces that give Black women access to hockey.  The Clubs first meet-up saw over 40 members attend a Washington Capitals Game. Hess’ favorite team is the Pittsburgh Penguins, and she has at least one hockey-related tattoo.

Hess is the Associate Director of Service Learning at La Sierra University, where she earned a Master’s in Literature. She resides on the executive, programming, and finance committees of the BGHC, hosting events and networking with various hockey entities. Hess proudly advocates for Black women in hockey through education, representation, and community building. 

 In Hess’ “spare time,” she is a freelance writer and adjunct professor.​

Chris Nikic, Civic Leader

Chris Nikic grew up with people telling him what he couldn’t do.  Kids with Down syndrome hear that a lot. Well-meaning people talk about setting realistic goals. Parents are counseled to temper expectations.
It’s understandable advice, especially when the child in question had heart surgery at 5 months old and needed a walker at age 3. As he grew up, Chris politely listened to that advice … and chose to ignore it.

Instead, with the support of his parents and Special Olympics Florida, Chris, who lives outside Orlando, set his own course. He worked, and trained, and dedicated himself to shattering the stereotypes people have about people with Down syndrome.  He learned to ride a bike. He swam until his muscles ached. He ran, and ran, and ran some more. Each time out, he pushed himself to be just 1 percent better – 1 percent faster or stronger. 

In November 2020, all that work paid off. Chris made history, becoming the first person with Down syndrome to complete a full IRONMAN race. That’s a 2.4-mile open-water swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile marathon.  Chris finished in 16:46:09, overcoming exhaustion, a bike crash that gave him a bloody knee, and an army of ants that attacked during a water break.  His achievement became international news and made Chris, now 21, a Guinness World Record holder. 

He became an inspiration for people around the world, and his story was featured on ESPN, network television, The New York Times and publications in France, Italy, Germany, and Croatia, to name just a few.

​Chris, who is already training for his next challenge, is now a sought-after motivational speaker delivering a powerful – and much needed – message: “People with intellectual disabilities can accomplish amazing things – if they’re only given the opportunity.”

Coach Stephanie Marquardt and James “Coach James” Bailey

Police and Youth Chicago Westside Sports James “Coach James” Bailey, Head Coach, Lafollette Park Coach James is a youth football, baseball and basketball coach. He is a community organizer at Lafollette Park located on the west side of Chicago in the Austin neighborhood. He has worked diligently to introduce the positives of sports to every child within his reach. 

Coach James’ journey began in 1993 where he unknowingly fell into a position at a local park in an at-risk community in Portland, Oregon where he coached flag football and basketball. The program was a huge success and caused him to realize that his own community in Chicago could benefit from the programs he developed in Oregon. In 1998, James returned home to Chicago and began looking for a place to teach sports and deliver the important life lessons that can be learned from sports. Coach James had a couple of stops along the way, assisting with various teams. Then he earned the head coaching position at Lafollette Park, located in Chicago’s Austin community.

Over the next decades, Coach James mentored and coached hundreds of youth from ages 5-18. In his own words, Coach James said, “There are a plethora of events and memories that could go on for days, but one defining moment that kept me motivated to stay on this journey was about a kid that missed several practices. I called their home to see why. Long story short, his mom explained that they were low on food and the power was off. I sat in my car in tears…and wondered how I could help this kid and his family. I decided to send out an anonymous text to my entire team list and all I can say is ‘WOW!’  A truck was filled from back to front with everything the family needed AND we were able to get the lights on. Serving this family felt better than any championship I ever won.” 
“Along the way, a few friends and myself realized that we were doing God’s work in this community, so we developed an organization called ‘New Life Knew Solutions’ run by my very good friend, CEO Albert Johnson. It is a mental health organization that directly puts kids and families in touch with needed resources to overcome adversities that are common in our community. Through our partnerships with organizations like “City of Refuge – Chicago” led by Executive Director Stephanie Marquardt and Chicago Westside Sports led by police sergeant Jermaine Harris we are finding innovative ways to teach OUR kids how to lead their own communities.”

Stephanie Marquardt, Coach, Chicago Westside Police and Youth Sports
Coach Stephanie Marquardt is the Executive Director of City of Refuge – Chicago and Chief Administrator of the Chicago Westside Police and Youth Sports initiative operated under City of Refuge – Chicago. She is also a baseball, basketball coach/mentor (more of a mentor) and a community organizer in the Chicago neighborhoods of Austin, Garfield Park and North Lawndale.   The many and varied career paths Stephanie has pursued have prepared her for this current role. She has worked as an Oncology Pharmaceutical Sales Representative, home day care provider, homeschool teacher, administrator, athletic office assistant and volunteer, copywriter, editor, project manager, author, coach, mentor, wife, and mom. Along the way exceptional leaders and coaches have surrounded her and invested in her development.

Stephanie’s favorite part of coaching is watching the kids’ faces as they see what they can accomplish both on and off the field or court. “Nothing is more satisfying than watching these precious kids develop into well-rounded, kind human beings as a result of participating in organized sports. The benefits of organized sports are well studied and documented, but to actually OBSERVE IT and see the kids’ faces as they see their own talents and the results of their own hard work, well it’s just amazing. I am so thankful that God has given me the opportunity and privilege of being a part of everything that has been accomplished. Further, the caliber of all the other adults I get to work with inspires me to be a better and more dedicated person.” 

WNBA, President’s Award for Social Advocacy

On April 24, 1996, women’s basketball announced “We Got Next” as the NBA Board of Governors approved the concept of a Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) to begin play in June 1997. Since then, the WNBA has been the home for the best women’s basketball talent in the world and in 2021 the league celebrated its 25th season.

The WNBA and its players have been pioneers among the pro sports leagues, leading the fight against social injustice. In 2020, the League dedicated its entire season to social justice. Now, in its 25th season, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert says they will continue to focus on raising awareness around important community issues through the Social Justice Council that several players in the league started last year.

Since its inception, part of the WNBA’s mission has been to promote the development and well being of youth and families within their community through Fever Cares, with a particular focus on Education, Service & Health. The league remains committed by combatting pre-existing racial and economic inequities, including underinvestment in public health and unequal access to care. The league will partner with the WNBPA to donate $25,000 to the Black Women’s Health Imperative, supporting their mission to help protect and advance the health and wellness of Black women and girls. Additionally, the WNBA plans to bring community vaccine sites to its markets. This has all been part of the 25th Season’s “Count It” campaign that served as a backdrop for the entire season, when together the WNBA and WNBPA celebrated the players’ history of advocacy across a variety of societal issues.

The Council cultivated designated spaces for community conversations, virtual roundtables, and other activations to address this country’s long history of inequality, implicit bias and systemic racism that has targeted black and brown communities. With an intentional plan to educate, amplify and mobilize for action, the WNBA and the WNBPA focused on engaging educators, activists, community and business leaders with players, team and league staff, and fans. With a common goal to build bridges to communities and create sustainable change, the League and the Players Association committed to this collaborative work at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, the Official Home of the WNBA 2020 Season. 

The WNBA is not new in supporting issues of social justice. In fact, it has dated as far back as 2014 when they became the first pro sports league to establish a formal Pride campaign. This important campaign helped deepen the league’s commitment to social activism, which has consistently been a core value for players in the WNBA.