When I reviewed the criteria of the ESPYs’ Arthur Ashe Courage Award, I assumed that the deserving winner has made contributions that transcend sports. These winners inspire through perseverance and rise above struggles. Amputee and Army veteran Noah Galloway had such hurdles. The late Lauren Hill battled with her back against the proverbial, cancerous wall. Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Kelly rose to the occasion when cancer made its way into his life…twice.
Meanwhile, Bruce Jenner, despite being a proud representative of the country as an Olympic gold medalist in 1976, has done his part by playing a part of a woman. In an age where lesbian and gay acceptance in society has hit an all-time high, there are plenty of “Caitlyn Jenner” stories that go unnoticed in the public eye. Jenner’s story isn’t about perseverance, but more about self-revelation. It did take courage for Jenner to make such a drastic change in his life, but it didn’t set any tone for anyone to be inspired, particularly because that tone has already been set. True courage is measured by how much encouragement follows, not how publicity it garners. ESPN may award courage to Bruce Jenner, but it shows cowardice in acknowledging even greater stories, even bigger obstacles, and even better candidates.
ESPN has arguably been the poster child for sports coverage for decades. Its place in the history of television is epic, but like many historic franchises in media history, it’s displayed its share of both famous and infamous moments over the course of time. We can go on forever about those categories, but this specific moment, placing an undeserving, reality show-driven, publicity-monger on a pedestal that includes renowned college basketball coach Jim Valvano and legendary civil rights activist Nelson Mandela, is one that many will refuse to get over. Jenner may appear to be an object of adoration today, but he’s been a subject of controversy for an even longer period of time.
There’s no doubt that being married into the circus atmosphere of the Kardashian family provides enough drama (good and bad) for anyone to handle, but can we all remember the fatal car crash in Malibu, CA earlier this year that Jenner was able to walk away from, both physically and reputation-wise? This tragedy, which killed one and injured others due to Jenner’s failure to observe the road consistently, is a public relations nightmare for both Jenner’s team and the ESPN public relations department that has to defend our newly-crowned Arthur Ashe Courage Award winner, but the prestigious network seems to overlook that, especially considering that Jenner dealt sibling channel ABC plenty of heavy ratings in April 2015. I doubt there’s any coincidence that Jenner got his “just deserts” by receiving such an award by ESPN in the aftermath of his interview with 20/20’s Diane Sawyer, as he revealed his transgender dreams and aspirations to the world. Call it whatever you want, but it can certainly deserve a rash of scrutiny and backlash from anyone who realizes what true adversity is, what pure courage is, and when the fix is in.
If any man has a hidden desire to be a woman, he doesn’t really need to look to Caitlyn Jenner for inspiration. The LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender) community hasn’t been hiding anywhere over the past decade, representing about 4 percent of the country’s population, with a considerable amount in that category being transgender. As a homegrown Californian, I can barely travel a block in an area like West Hollywood before seeing gay and lesbian individuals (not to mention drag queens) proudly walking the streets. At my alma mater of California State University, Long Beach, there is a specific graduation ceremony for LGBT individuals. If you ask me, the courage has been there for transgender people to go public. They don’t need to watch a reality show or follow Jenner’s Twitter account to summon any bravery to come forth with such a revelation.
ESPN wasn’t thinking of Arthur Ashe and the previous winners that demonstrated inner strength and positive influence. Instead, it took the easy way out, weaseling into a ratings-filled bonanza by prostituting Jenner’s gender and identity struggles through one big, “heartfelt” presentation. Its excuse for such a troubling decision? ESPY Awards producer Maura Mandt stated the obvious by saying that Jenner is “one of the greatest athletes of our time,” while adding, “One of the biggest platforms the Arthur Ashe Foundation has is educational, and I think in this choice we have the opportunity to educate people about this issue and hopefully change and possibly save some lives. I think that is why it was the right choice.”
The key term is educational, but what is Caitlyn Jenner exactly teaching here? He had the platform to reveal his true nature to the world because of the celebrity that follows it. The average Joe doesn’t possess the cameras or fame to ease him into a transgender lifestyle. That person doesn’t have the guarantee of a reality show based on his life-altering change to further explain his story. The learning lesson is lost on many minds because of the lack of credentials behind the teaching experience.
Someone like Hill, who died of brain cancer this past April, teaches the world that life is precious and courage is a coveted trait. Hill, who played basketball for Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati, OH, desired to play the game she loved, despite her terminal illness. She played in four games, but won the hearts of millions across the world. She could’ve fought her cancer alone, but chose to show many who could identify with her that heart is a talent that should never be compromised. Through Hill’s influence and effort, she was able to raise $1 million for pediatric cancer research, while earning both scholarly and athletic honors. That is what Arthur Ashe, a legendary tennis player who educated awareness of HIV and AIDS before his AIDS-related death in 1993, was about.
One could also look to Galloway, a double amputee who served in the Army for five years, for a life lesson that life isn’t about how many times you fall, but how many times you get back up after being knocked down. After years of service that culminated in duty in Iraq (Operation Iraqi Freedom), he became a personal trainer and motivational speaker, guiding others both physically and emotionally. Having lost his left arm above the elbow and left leg above the knee in a bomb attack, Galloway had leeway to exempt himself for the normalcies of society. Instead, his message was simple: No excuses. Noah Galloway would’ve proudly been a fine addition to the hall of Arthur Ashe Courage Award recipients.
Former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, who fought cancer twice and MRSA once in a span of nearly a year and a half, is mainly recognized for his achievements on the gridiron. However, not much national attention is paid towards a foundation that he and his wife Jill founded in 1997 as a result of the death of their son Hunter James Kelly that year. Hunter’s Hope was established to raise awareness of Krabbe disease, a condition that affects the myelin sheath and, ultimately, the nervous system of the body. Kelly’s son died at 8 from this disease, but increased understanding of this condition has led to an Institute in the boy’s name being established at the University of Buffalo in 2004. Kelly was a champion on the field, but has demonstrated so much greatness off of it by having the will to battle through his own struggles, while being a beacon of hope to others. A story like that deserves such an award.
Sure, it’s easy to piggyback off of last year’s winner, Michael Sam, and continue a trend to acknowledge the mettle of famous LGBT individuals. But Sam’s situation was far consequential than Jenner’s, as he was the first openly gay athlete of a sport that has mostly consisted of heterosexual men: American football. Sam’s professional football career could’ve been over before it got started, as the distractions and uneasiness towards other players (many of whom are devout church-goers) could’ve buried his chances of having a career in the field he loves.
Sam faced hurdles and adversity; Jenner just represents a hurdle to the purity of what courage is. “I Am Cait,” which will follow Jenner’s transition into womanhood, will sure gain a cult following. But ESPN has lost a plethora of believers in the way it honors bravery and perseverance. It could’ve made a tough decision with a number of more deserving candidates, but it chose the simple route of ratings. The Arthur Ashe Courage Award and the overwhelming applause may go to Caitlyn Jenner, but there should be no handclaps for ESPN’s cowardice in its decision to make a mockery of true adversity.