Radiant in a white dress at the ESPY Awards on Wednesday, Caitlyn Jenner seemed a woman on top of the world. She was receiving the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage — one of the most prestigious awards in sports — not just for her athletic achievements, but for her very public struggle to come out as transgender.
“It is an honor to have the word ‘courage’ associated with my life,” she said. “But tonight another word comes to mind — and that is ‘fortunate.’ I owe a lot to sports. It has shown me the world; it has given me an identity. If someone wanted to bully me — well, you know what? I was the MVP of the football team. That wasn’t going to be a problem. And the same thing goes tonight. If you want to call me names, make jokes, doubt my intentions, go ahead, because the reality is I can take it.”
But where rhetoric soars and tears are shed, there are always doubters.
For weeks, as The Washington Post’s Cindy Boren reported, some sports commentators have tied themselves in knots wondering whether Jenner is an appropriate vessel for the legacy of Arthur Ashe, the African American tennis star who died of AIDS in 1993. Ashe, who is thought to have contracted HIV in a blood transfusion, stood up not long before his death to raise awareness about what was once thought to be just a gay disease. Other luminaries to take home the Ashe Award include Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King and Nelson Mandela. Yes: Nelson Mandela.
Was Jenner — publicity hound, Kardashian affiliate, Vanity Fair cover girl — up to snuff? No less a personage than sportscaster king Bob Costas coughed in the peanut gallery.
“I wish Caitlyn all the happiness in the world and all the peace of mind in the world,” Costas said last month on “The Dan Patrick Show.” “However, it strikes me that awarding the Arthur Ashe Award to Caitlyn Jenner is just a crass exploitation play — it’s a tabloid play.”
He wasn’t done.
“In the broad world of sports, I’m pretty sure they could’ve found someone — and this is not anything against Caitlyn Jenner — who was much closer to actively involved in sports, who would’ve been deserving of what that award represents,” he said.
Next batter up: NPR saint Frank Deford.
“I can understand and sympathize with the torment Bruce Jenner has endured all these years, but I don’t think it rises to the level of courage,” Deford told the Los Angeles Times. “Arthur Ashe had a great sense of humor, and he would probably be laughing at all of this, chuckling that Caitlyn Jenner would be getting this award, and that ESPN was trying to pass it off this way.”
He wasn’t done.
“Courage is usually involved with overcoming something,” he said. “Caitlyn Jenner is being forthright and honest, but this is something that she wanted, and she has a good fallback position — a reality show, fame and lots of money. There’s not a great deal of risk involved in the same way that someone who worked down at the body shop would experience. Bruce Jenner had a good idea that he wasn’t going to lose by doing this; his family is in support of him.”
Then there were those who offered alternate candidates. One prominent name: Lauren Hill, a 19-year-old college basketball player stricken with cancer who died in April after achieving her dream of scoring in a game.
“Make no mistake, what Caitlyn did was courageous,” said Kevin Frazier of “Entertainment Tonight” — a show that’s no stranger to the Kardashians. “But Lauren’s journey was not about glamour or publicity. It was just a girl who never gave up her dream of playing college basketball while she was dying of cancer, and along the way she raised millions of dollars for pediatric cancer. That is why I feel that she is deserving of the award.”
Wednesday night, Hill was honored posthumously with the Best Moment ESPY, ABC News reported.
Then there was Noah Galloway, who continues to compete in adventure races and other events despite losing an arm and a leg during the Iraq War. After Jenner’s selection was announced, it was falsely reported that Galloway was the “runner-up.”
Defending their selection, ESPN made clear, first of all, that there are no runner-ups for the Ashe Award. Honorees are chosen after consultations with the Ashe Foundation, the prospective winner and what Sports Illustrated described as “people within the community of the winner.”
“There are no finalists or people that vote on it. That has never been the case,” ESPY co-executive producer Maura Mandt told Sports Illustrated. “That was something that was completely not true, which I know was out in the media.”
Then there was the rumor that giving Jenner the award was just payback for her high-profile — and widely viewed — interview with Diane Sawyer. Sawyer, after all, works for ABC — which also aired the ESPYs.
“There is absolutely no connection between the interview and the award,” an ABC spokesman told the Los Angeles Times. “There’s simply no truth to that claim.”
Still, the Ashe Award’s mandate is quite broad — maybe even vague. ESPN writes the award honors those “whose contributions transcend sports.” Recipients include not just Mandela, a civil rights icon who spent 27 years in prison and helped dismantle one of the world’s most noxious regimes, but — Howard Cosell. How to measure the achievements of a man who ended apartheid in South Africa against a guy with a nasal voice, toupee and a cigar?
Let’s go to the videotape.
“Recipients reflect the spirit of Arthur Ashe, possessing strength in the face of adversity, courage in the face of peril and the willingness to stand up for their beliefs no matter what the cost,” according to the ESPYs Web site. “The award is inspired by the life that Ashe lived, using his fame and stature to advocate for human rights, although, at the time, those positions may have been unpopular and were often controversial.”
Here is where the pro-Jenner crowd scored points — and likely won the game.
“I think Caitlyn’s decision to publicly come out as a transgender woman and live as Caitlyn Jenner displayed enormous courage and self-acceptance,” Mandt said. “Bruce Jenner could have easily gone off into the sunset as this American hero and never have dealt with this publicly. Doing so took enormous courage.”