Caitlyn Jenner and the Arthur Ashe Award

Was She the Right Choice for the Award?

Photo credit: Screen capture, Caitlyn Jenner Accepts Arthur Ashe Courage Award, Caitly Jenner YouTube Channel

Shortly after she revealed herself as transgender, Caitlyn Jenner and the rest of the world were notified that she is this year’s recipient of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. The decision has sparked just as much controversy as her coming out on the infamous Diane Sawyer interview at the end of April.

In order to fully understand and assess whether or not Jenner is qualified for this award, we must understand who Arthur Ashe was and what the award stands for. Ashe was no stranger to discrimination. Born in the ’40s, he entered the tennis game in the ’60s on the heels of the Civil Rights movement and spent most of his career fighting the discrimination he confronted as an African-American. Despite this, his stellar athletic performance led him to be the first man of his race to win a Grand Slam tournament. He was also an avid humanitarian who committed his life off the court to pursuing social justice. Ashe passed away in 1993 due to pneumonia, a side effect of AIDS, which he believed he contracted through a tainted blood transfusion just 10 years prior. Up until his death, he led campaigns to spread awareness of and financial support for the AIDS epidemic and the research. He also spoke out against apartheid long before he contracted the affliction that took his life and continues to end countless other lives to this day.

Similarly, the Arthur Ashe Courage Award reflects everything that he stood for in order to keep his legacy an inspiration to other athletes. One of the most prestigious awards in the sports community, it is given to an individual who “reflect[s] 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”.

Having established the criteria for the recipients of this award, Jenner’s athletic career can be summarized. Jenner was a star decades before Keeping Up with the Kardashians aired. Jenner, who was then going by her birth name Bruce, competed in the 1976 Olympic games in the strenuous decathlon, which assesses the athlete’s “ability to jump (hurdles, long jump, high jump, pole vault), run (100 meters, 400 meters, 1,500 meters) and throw (javelin, shot put, discus) [in a] two-day test of speed, strength and stamina.” Jenner came out on top, earning the gold medal and, consequently, the title of “World’s Greatest Athlete”. She also broke the world record of points earned during the event, with a total of 8,618. Because of these accomplishments, she was named the 1976 Associated Press Male of the of the Year and cemented herself into the Olympic Hall of Fame in 1986.

There has been much opposition to the announcement that Jenner will receive the Arthur Ashe award. One of the more prominent figures that have commented about this decision is Bob Costas, a respected sportscaster, who stated that he “[wishes] Caitlyn all the happiness in the world and all the peace of mind in the world. However, it strikes me that awarding the Arthur Ashe award to Caitlyn Jenner is just a crass exploitation play. It’s a tabloid play.” This alleged publicity motive was also used when Jenner first unveiled Caitlyn, though she had not disclosed her name at the time, with many stating that she was making these transgender claims to become even more famous or earn more money. Jenner has confronted these accusations with adamant opposition.

Another claim Costas made was that an athlete more actively and currently involved in sports could have received the award instead. He maintains that Jenner’s struggles do “take a measure of personal courage”; however, he adamantly believes that it is a publicity stunt, similar to a tabloid effect, used to “pump up audience the way lots of things are put on television, to attract eyeballs, not because of the validity, but because of whatever the kind of gawker factor is.” Nate Olson is also among those who maintain Costas’ beliefs. He states,  “Jenner is a legend. A sports icon. All of this reality TV mess has dumbed down Jenner’s image, and now ESPN is falling in line, too… this is entertainment, and dare I say that Jenner’s story is more “sexy” than most.”

There was also opposition among the general public, especially on social media platforms such as Twitter. User @CayNoel tweeted, “If Caitlyn Jenner is more courageous then Noah Galloway then I’m not sure what kinda world I’m living in… “. Another user, @Mike_PiFF03, tweeted, “While I think it’s cool @ESPN is awarding Caitlyn Jenner, there was nobody more courageous than Lauren Hill in all of sports. #ArthurAshe“. One final example comes from the Twitter account of @CoachLarryCox, who opposed the decision by posting, “Bruce Jenner won the Arthur Ashe courage award over Army Veteran Noah Galloway? I am disappointed in ESPN’s values. Let the boycott begin!” Note the use of the name Bruce instead of Caitlyn in that last example.

The outrage over Jenner’s public acceptance of her gender identity has extended beyond this award, as well. Through change.org, Jennifer Bradford submitted a petition, which garnered just under 10,000 signatures as of June 4th, to the International Olympic Committee that urged the gold medal be revoked from Jenner’s name due to the strict male and female separation during competition. Despite posing this as a genuine interest in upholding the rules of the IOC, Bradford betrays her transphobia by continuing, “We urge Ms. Jenner to support the transgender community by giving up the medals earned by competing against the wrong gender. Thank you, and congratulations to Ms. Jenner for her courage! #givebackthegold”. Bradford provides a very clear opinion: Jenner should forfeit her medal in honor of transgender support. This is degrading. If anyone is a supporter of transgender rights, it is Jenner. Besides, she was not undergoing hormone therapy at the time and won the medal fair and square as a biological man.

I find it interesting that so many of those in opposition to Jenner’s accomplishments claim that they support her lifestyle and wish her the absolute best, but none of them deem her a worthy candidate for an award given to an athletic figure who has demonstrated unprecedented bravery. Do not mistake any of these “congratulations” as anything other than transphobia all dressed up for its very own kind of the red carpet.

Getting off my soapbox, I still wanted to know whether or not this really is a publicity stunt, and if Jenner was too long retired from sports to receive this award. Those are important questions and Ingrid Vasquez has some answers, even addressing some of the other eligible athletes, Noah Galloway and Lauren Hill. Galloway is distance runner and recent competitor in Dancing with the Stars despite being a double amputee. Hill is a recent victim of brain cancer and she spent her last days using college basketball to cope with her terminal illness. She also raised an impressive amount of money for cancer research along with visiting children who were in the hospital because of cancer-related issues. I am in no way pitting these individuals against Jenner. These athletes are simply popular comparisons and they need to be assessed.

In order to further assess whether or not Jenner’s retirement from athleticism is an Arthur Ashe Courage Award anomaly, she researched the correlation between age of athletic retirement and acceptance of the award. While many of the past recipients were still actively involved in sports the year they won, like Michael Sam in 2014 and Pat Summit in 2012, there were others who won that retired much earlier and some whose connections to sports are “looser than others” but they have compelling stories detailing the hardships they faced.

While Vasquez understands that Jenner did not transcend sports in quite the same way as Galloway and Hill, she maintains that Jenner still went above and beyond her athletic legacy by sharing her transition story and embracing a lifestyle that is considered incredibly controversial. Vasquez states, “And while Jenner was never lying to the world, telling the world her truth is the reason why she is being awarded the Arthur Ashe Award for courage.”

She recognizes that while this could be a stunt to increase audience viewing for the awards ceremony, she is still deserving of the award. She maintains that, “Whether you agree with her decision or not, her actions have spoken for themselves. Courage is known as ‘strength in the face of pain or grief.’ Jenner isn’t an amputee or a cancer survivor. But pain is not just a physical emotion.”

When asked why she chose to compete in the decathlon, Jenner stated that she had to “because it was the most challenging event of everything I did, it had everything”. Even as Bruce, she never backed down from a challenge and she has reacted to Caitlyn’s debut with the same bravery that allowed her win in ’76. She is now and has always competed against a different kind of international rival: transphobia. Because of the stigma associated with gender dysphoria, Jenner was forced to hide behind the guise of Bruce, the cis suit she wore every single day of her life up until late April, when she finally traded that in for Caitlyn’s designer dresses and heels.

I am in no way stating that any other athlete has suffered less than Jenner, nor am I trying to compare someone’s suffering to another’s. We all have adversity that we must face and each struggle needs to be appreciated and understood; however, I am stating that Jenner does deserve the award, particularly because she is an acclaimed athlete who is now embracing a lifestyle that is incredibly controversial, much like Ashe did when he advocated for AIDS victims decades ago. There is no addendum that states the award winner must still be actively involved in sports. The award goes to a brave American who has faced and overcome adversity. Many other athletes have done this, as well, and I do give them credit; however, Jenner is a qualified candidate. This could very well be a publicity stunt, but it is still an important milestone for transgender rights.

Sarah Knedler Allen perfectly summed up Jenner’s qualifications for the award in her comment on this Huffington Post article: “She was a brave champion as an athlete and now she is a brave champion as a role model for transgender people.” By unveiling Caitlyn to the world, she publicly embraced a lifestyle that is prone to ridicule and discrimination. She still took this courageous step even though there are some who would want to kill her rather than live on this earth with people like her.

Though her athletic career has long been over, Jenner remains a champion for the trans community, a beacon of hope for those who believe that they are broken, who have been told for so long that they are so unnatural they should not be alive. Jenner believes that transgender people need someone to look up to, someone who can use their position of power to do some good. She was once titled the “World’s Greatest Athlete” and she is once again crowned as one of the greatest representatives of the transgender community, not just in America but across the globe. If that is not courage, I don’t know what is.

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