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From All-American to activist, Seattle Storm's Breanna Stewart embraces speaking out on issues

"Equality for all takes each of us making an effort," Breanna Stewart said at the 2016 ESPYS. "Together, let's be better." Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Breanna Stewart had never been to a protest before. She had recently returned to the West Coast from China -- where she was playing overseas after her rookie season in the WNBA -- when protesters gathered at Los Angeles International Airport in January over President Trump's executive order limiting entry by immigrants and refugees from seven countries.

Stewart, in Los Angeles at the time by sheer happenstance, decided that she needed to be there.

"I chose to go because I believed in it," Stewart said. "If I'm there, why not? Why wouldn't I go?"

The 6-foot-4 Stewart stood in the thick of the crowd as they chanted, surrounded by food and music. LAX was one of the airports at which some travelers were detained. Stewart said the crowd erupted when one detainee was released.

"It was one of those things that made you feel good," Stewart said of her experience. "It made you feel like you were a part of something even by standing there."

It wasn't the first time -- nor would it be the last -- that Stewart would lend her voice to a cause about which she is passionate. Since coming to the WNBA, she has publicly commented on issues ranging from Black Lives Matter to gender equality to LGBTQ inclusion.

"Stewie has a really good understanding that she can learn from a lot of people," teammate Sue Bird said. "With that, the combination of paying attention to what's going on in the world and listening to other people's stories gives her an awareness that, for her age, is next-level."

It's lit🔥

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It's a marked difference for Stewart compared to her college years, when she never publicly commented on social issues while at Connecticut. The environment was different and she had different responsibilities to consider. Her experience at UConn was team- and program-driven, and she was one part of that whole. As a professional, her career belongs to herself.

She still might have said something, though, if given the opportunity.

"I was asked more questions about these topics as a pro than I was in college," Stewart said. "I wasn't asked about it, so I didn't say anything. I never really had the opportunity to put it out there."

The focus on athlete activism has increased in the wake of public protests by Colin Kaepernick, other NFL players and Megan Rapinoe, along with the 2016 ESPYS opening by LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade. But the conversation is often limited to spotlighting the most influential of male athletes.

Stewart also made a public declaration at the 2016 ESPYS, using her Best Female Athlete acceptance speech as an opportunity to demand more attention for the WNBA. "Equality for all takes each of us making an effort," she said as she accepted her award. "Together, let's be better."

"I wanted [this speech] to be meaningful," Stewart said recently. "I've done a lot of speeches in my life and thanked my family and friends, but I wanted to talk about something bigger than that and kind of make a point."

Stewart continually comes back to the issue of gender equality. From her experiences at UConn, both as an athlete and as someone who has taken her fair share of women's-studies classes, the inequality she sees between men and women extends to everyday life. It is personal to her and drives her to speak out on behalf of others.

"We're fighting for equality ourselves within women's basketball," she said. "When you see someone else fighting for that same equality, you want to be a part of it. It's silly not to."

"We're fighting for equality ourselves within women's basketball. When you see someone else fighting for that same equality, you want to be a part of it. It's silly not to." Breanna Stewart

With over 40,000 Twitter followers and more than 100,000 followers on Instagram, Stewart has one of the larger social media followings of WNBA players. She might not have the following of James or Skylar Diggins-Smith, but she feels responsibility all the same.

"If we have a platform that reaches thousands of people," Stewart said, "we have to use it."

Being outspoken doesn't always go unpunished and can raise questions about an athlete's marketability, however. Kaepernick is still a free agent, and Rapinoe took heat for joining the anthem protest last fall. But publicly taking a stand on numerous issues has not seemed to hurt Stewart.

"For Stewie, activism has come naturally, and while I think it undoubtedly elevates her visibility to be a part of important conversations, the more critical byproduct is that she's authentically engaged, learning and connecting with the world around her," Stewart's agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, said this week via email.

"The fact she is on such an interesting journey with fans engaged with her as a whole, authentic person rather than just as an athlete, will shape her legacy and can give brands who want to stand for something a lot to work with," added Kagawa Colas, who has represented dozens of top-tier WNBA players over the years.

Stewart is able to speak out partly because of the community of support around her. The Storm is an active organization when it comes to social causes. Following the mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub in June 2016, the Seattle Storm held an online auction to benefit the OneOrlando fund. Stewart contributed game-worn shoes with the names of the 49 victims handwritten on them. The Storm are planning a similar auction in July to support Planned Parenthood, and on Tuesday, team president and general manager Alisha Valavanis attended a Pride event that drew front-office personnel or players from all five of Seattle's professional sports teams.

When WNBA players last summer protested in response to police brutality and the killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, the Storm players posted a solidarity photo.

"There comes a time when silence is betrayal" -MLK @wnba #WewillNOTbesilenced #Blacklivesmatter

A post shared by Breanna Stewart (@bre_stewart30) on

"Part of being a professional athlete is that you have a platform, and there's a responsibility that comes along with that," Storm coach Jenny Boucek said. "I think [Stewart] is well-thought-out in what she says. We're totally supportive of our players' expressing themselves."

Stewart isn't going to stop speaking out. If she can have an impact, that's what she wants to do.

"There's a lot going on in the world," Stewart said. "This is going to help more than it's going to hurt."