When I first found out on June 3rd that Caitlyn Jenner would be awarded the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPY Awards, I was a bit perplexed.
I knew that she would be a powerful icon for the transgender movement. I knew that with her brand and the image of her family, she would be making a big sacrifice in choosing to live her life a different way. I have the utmost respect for her decision and I didn’t, for a second, doubt her courage.
At the same time, I had the same big question as anyone else: What the heck does any of this have to do with sports? With big stories around the indelible impact of Devon Still and Lauren Hill’s courage, it was hard to figure out why a former decathlon athlete who had long been removed from sports-related headlines would suddenly deserve this honor.
I soon realized my critique was innocuous compared to what I began to see on social media.
It didn’t help that Caitlyn Jenner had long been affiliated with the Kardashians, a family known for publicity and unique capitalist opportunities, or that the announcement came very close to a Vanity Fair cover that had not allowed much time for society to process or educate themselves on the meaning of the transformation at all. As expected, many chimed in to announce more deserving winners and pictures of army soldiers and cancer patients. Others threw in words like “freak”, “gross”, “disgusting”, “monster” and other hateful comments with no relation to the award. An extreme low.
The most intriguing comments I saw were related to Arthur Ashe himself.
I was curious. I looked up Arthur Ashe’s story and what his thoughts would have been to Caitlyn Jenner as a recipient.
Many know Arthur Ashe as a reputable tennis player but few know why he became the namesake of an award related to courage. In September of 1988, after receiving a surgery, Ashe was discovered to be HIV positive through a complication from blood transfusion. For years, he and his wife kept his illness private for the sake of his young daughter. It wasn’t until 1992 that Ashe decided to go public with his illness and became an advocate, working to raise awareness of the virus and to clear up common misconceptions about his diagnosis and disease. He started the Arthur Ashe foundation for defeating AIDs and committed to working for resources and funding to build support. This was at a time when there was still confusion around who could contract it and how to interact with those who had it.
There was a large stigma especially around the fact it was mostly homosexuals who could contract this disease. This led Ashe to interface with many members of the LGBT community throughout his fight and it was stated that he had nothing but sympathy and respect for the gay communities, often arguing in defense of their lifestyles.
My guess is no — Arthur Ashe wouldn’t have been upset. As a celebrity creating awareness for a relatively unknown disease, he would’ve had empathy for the challenge that lay ahead of Caitlyn Jenner and battling the stigma around the transgender movement. As someone who had to keep a matter private for the sake of reputation and his family, he would’ve understood Caitlyn’s struggle. As someone who spent much of his life fighting to create acceptance of a new reality for millions of others, he would’ve been smiling to see Caitlyn Jenner trying to do the same.
As for the courage award itself being awarded to those in sports, my quick research led me to another understanding: the award is not limited to athletes. By definition, the award goes to those whose contributions transcend sports. The award was won in 2009 by Nelson Mandela for his actions in South Africa to divert racial tensions. It was won in 2002 posthumously to those who diverted one of the flights during 9/11. The award has been won by cancer patients, military veterans, activists and more. If anything, this award should teach us that courage comes in many forms. Last year, Michael Sam caught similar criticism for his public announcement of homosexuality. Courage means staying brave in the face of bullets and medical treatments, but also staying brave in the face of hate, discrimination, and harmful prejudice. Courage is not a competition. In fact, courage in 2015 is starting to mean more. For Arthur Ashe, he had to brave a debilitating virus but dealt with much of the same skepticism from American society. He understood courage in many of its different forms. To think that he would have condemned this type of courage is disingenuous at best.
Whether you think someone else was more deserving of the award, it should not mean that Caitlyn Jenner was simply not a qualified candidate. I highly doubt it was a simple decision from a PR side. It was probably one that was highly scrutinized by Disney and ESPN alike. If you should criticize anyone, you can continue to criticize ESPN. Just know that many others — including the 40% of transgender people who attempt suicide at some points in their lives — count this platform as a blessing.