When was the last time this many people cared this much about an ESPY?

ESPN announced that Caitlyn Jenner (formerly Bruce) would receive the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at this year’s ESPYs.  The Ashe award was first given at the ESPYs in 1993 to Jim Valvano.  Since then its honorees have included everyone from Dean Smith and Nelson Mandela to Robin Roberts and Michael Sam.

ESPN describes the Arthur Ashe Courage Award thusly:

The Ashe Award is one of the most prestigious in sports. 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. 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. From speaking out against apartheid in South Africa to revealing to the world his struggle with AIDS, Ashe never backed away from a difficult issue, even though doing so would have been easier. Winners of the Ashe Award strive to carry on Ashe’s legacy in their own lives – – inspired by those who do so each day.

When Caitlyn Jenner was selected as this year’s honoree, backlash was sadly predictable.  Among them..

ESPN is pushing a pro-LGBT/liberal/communist/whatever agenda.

ESPN is only doing this for ratings.

Fill in the blank with whatever transphobic comment you can think of.

Something else happened too.  A movement has begun lobbying ESPN to honor the late Lauren Hill with the Arthur Ashe Award following her brave battle with brain cancer and fulfilling her dream of playing in a college basketball game.  Hashtags like #LaurenHillESPY and #LaurenIsWorthIt are big trends on Twitter.  Those campaigns have received some mainstream media attention in the past 48 hours.  Then there was the ridiculous notion that Noah Galloway was the “runner-up” to Jenner.  Social media ran with that one even though there’s not a notion of truth to it and it seems to have originated with a sarcastic tweet from a Boston radio host.

Again, when was the last time this many people cared this much about an ESPY?

The ESPYs themselves are a creation of ESPN.  A night to celebrate sports, but mostly to celebrate ESPN and their ability to bring Bristol, Connecticut and Hollywood, California together.  A night where literally nothing else is happening in sports where ESPN can get a bunch of actors and athletes together on the red carpet and shout to the world, “LOOK AT HOW AWESOME WE ARE SINCE WE HAVE CHANNING TATUM AND JOE FLACCO IN THE SAME ROOM TOGETHER.”  No professional athlete dreams of growing up to win an ESPY because there’s nothing tangible attached to it.

Over time though, the one identifiable quality of the ESPYs that has given real value to the entire endeavor has been celebrating those people with athletic ties who have inspired others.  The two defining moments in the entire history of the ESPYs are the speeches offered by Jim Valvano and Stuart Scott as they were both dying of cancer.  The Ashe Award, and now the Jimmy V Perseverance Award, (given this year to Devon and Leah Still) continue that work.

There are legitimate reasons why Hill, Galloway, and several other great candidates should be honored at this year’s ESPYs.  Each have inspired others in their own unique way.  And right now, who is to say those individuals won’t be recognized in some way that evening?

But you have to have your head buried plenty far in the sand to believe all of these dedicated campaigns to honor someone other than Caitlyn Jenner are entirely altruistic*.  A note from a commenter supporting one of these anti-Jenner campaigns that appeared on my Facebook news feed (the dregs of social commentary it needs to be said) remarked that he should win an ESPY too because he believes he’s really a T-Rex in mocking Jenner’s transition.

* That’s not to say that everyone supporting these campaigns or even the majority has ulterior motives, calling everyone who disagrees with your position a bigot is no way to advance understanding and dialogue.  However, it does highlight what really lies beneath the surface for some.

Had ESPN chosen Galloway or Hill or someone else would there be multiple petitions aimed towards ESPN and trending hashtags?  Would there be so much anger and discontentment over an ESPY?  Highly doubtful.  Up to this point, there has never been this much concern about who ESPN picks to win one of ESPN’s self-created awards.  That’s what leads one to believe there’s more than meets the eye with the backlash against Jenner’s selection.  Moreover, it’s much easier to masquerade said backlash in statements like “Lauren Hill is more deserving and more courageous than Caitlyn Jenner.”

Think about that statement for a second.  Who gets to be the arbiter of who is more or less courageous than someone else?  Who can raise their hand to tell us how we should quantify courage or who is more deserving of someone else in that department?  And in truth, don’t all of the hateful things said about Caitlyn Jenner in the past 48 hours prove exactly why she is so courageous in making her transition so public?  Consider the attempted suicide rate among the transgender or non-conforming gender community is at 41%, nine times the average of the total population.  Jenner making this transition in the face of those numbers and the hate speech against her seems to fulfill what ESPN says the Ashe award is all about, does it not?

Jenner’s selection as this year’s Arthur Ashe Courage Award recipient should never diminish the inspiration of Lauren Hill or anyone else who had an impact beyond the playing field this year.

Why can’t both Jenner and Hill be respected for their courage in their own ways?  Why do we need to turn their lives, who have inspired and touched individuals in very different, but very meaningful ways, into a competition?  ESPN made their choice and they will honor Caitlyn Jenner on the night of the ESPYs.  So be it.  But finding inspiration in sports should not be limited to ESPN’s made-for-TV awards show.  What Lauren Hill did was remarkable.  Her taking the floor and living her dream is something that scores of people around the country and around the world will never forget.  And her life, her courage, and her inspiration does not need an ESPY to validate it.

So why can’t we as fellow human beings on life’s journey appreciate the courage shown by both Caitlyn Jenner and Lauren Hill?

UPDATE: ESPN has released a statement on the Arthur Ashe Award that you can here.

About Matt Yoder

Award winning sportswriter at The Comeback and Awful Announcing. The biggest cat in the whole wide world.

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