Since 1993, ESPN has handed out the fan-voted ESPY Awards for excellence in athletic performance, becoming the most-watched sports awards show on television. (This despite three consecutive years of steep ratings declines.) But the ESPYs’ influence lie more in their noncompetitive interludes than the awards proper: Do you remember who won last year’s ESPY for best game? By contrast, even casual fans discuss the broadcast’s viral moments at the water cooler — from last year’s appearance by more than 140 survivors of sexual abuse by former gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar to the one that started it all, coaching legend Jim Valvano’s speech in the first ESPYs telecast.
When the ailing Valvano (“Jimmy V”) used his receipt of the first Arthur Ashe Courage Award to announce the launch of his and ESPN’s V Foundation for cancer research, he began a trend of social relevance that has been central to the ESPYs’ identity throughout their 27-year run.
Actor and comedian Tracy Morgan, this year’s host, said Valvano’s cause, rather than the chance to meet his sports idols, attracted him: “The athletes get honored for all the magical things that they do. But for me, it’s about fighting cancer. I get an opportunity to do my part. Help people that need help. So it’s bigger than sports for me .… I’ve got family members and people close to me who’ve died of cancer. I don’t want anyone to forget Jimmy Valvano, when he made that speech.”
It would be hard to do. The recipient of the Ashe Award often delivers the night’s most memorable, and moving, speech. See Stuart Scott, longtime anchor of ESPN’s flagship sports news broadcast, “Sportscenter,” who referred to Valvano’s speech and the V Foundation when he accepted the award shortly before he died in 2014. Or former ESPN sportscaster and now “Good Morning America” host Robin Roberts, who received the Ashe Award in 2013 after winning a Peabody Award for covering her own bone marrow disease.
“Still can’t believe I was standing backstage when Jim Valvano accepted the first Arthur Ashe Award for Courage,” Roberts said, noting that ESPN has raised nearly $100 million for cancer research through the ESPYs. “I was in awe watching him give an inspiring speech that touched so many, and still does .… the night I accepted my award, I was emotional knowing that I was standing on that stage 20 years after Jimmy V.
“I felt so blessed to accept the award, and felt that it was in part due to everyone who responded to his challenge, because of all the support and research provided by many donations, that mine was one of the lives that has been saved.”
In a similar vein, the ESPYs have long displayed a sense of social consciousness. They’ve honored Muhammad Ali not for his championships, but for his activism; Michael Sam, the first openly gay player to be drafted by the NFL; and Caitlyn Jenner, for her very public gender transition.
The 2016 ceremony opened with a somber speech from four of the NBA’s most prominent players (Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James) calling for athletes to increase their activism, especially concerning police brutality against blacks.
And the 2018 show featured one of the most stirring moments in the awards’ history, when survivors of sexual abuse by former Michigan State and U.S. Olympics doctor Larry Nassar took the stage en masse to accept the Ashe Award.
Multiple Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast Aly Raisman delivered one of the group’s speeches that night.
“I was on a bit of a roller coaster the whole evening trying to keep my thoughts and feelings in balance, because I was really nervous to speak,” she said. “When you consider the statistics of how common sexual abuse is, I realized that the Army of Survivors were probably not the only ones in the room who have dealt with abuse, plus the number of people watching on TV, so I wanted people to know that they are not alone.”
“It is hard to be so vulnerable in front of so many people, but I also find strength in that vulnerability,” Raisman continued. “I think people forget how hard it is to get up in front of a huge audience and many people watching back home on TV and talk about the hardest thing to ever happen to you .… What happened was a nightmare. But what kept me going was thinking about the possibility of someone else out there watching, and possibly gaining strength to speak out against their own abuser.”
Those moments are indelible, but a 2015 Consumer Insights survey for ESPN demonstrated that highlight reels remain the biggest draw for fans by a wide margin. Respondents apparently had a low view of “the impact of ESPY awards on an athlete’s legacy.” As one said, “Sports awards are won on the playing field, not in inane ceremonies.” Nor do you hear of athletes receiving bonuses for winning ESPYs.
But that doesn’t mean the awards are meaningless to the players. The Denver Broncos’ Von Miller, a Super Bowl MVP and previous ESPY nominee for best championship performance, said, “The ESPYs have always been special. Athletes across every sport come together to celebrate one another’s achievements and I think that’s what sport is about — [to] be part of something bigger than ourselves and uplift each other.”
Reigning NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes, a nominee this year for both best NFL player and best male athlete, grew up with the awards: “To watch the ESPYs pretty much my whole entire life ... to get to go to my first ESPYs award show and actually be nominated is an amazing feeling.”
Skier Lindsey Vonn, who has won ESPYs for best female athlete and best female Olympian, takes the long view of the prizes’ impact on her career.
“They were definitely a big part of my success and how I viewed my success,” she said. “Skiing isn’t exactly the most popular sport in the United States, so I didn’t really feel like people knew who I was or what I was doing. Once I won the Olympics in 2010, I won my first ESPY — I feel like there was just a wave of change.”
Vonn couldn’t quantify whether the ESPY wins translated to financial benefits.
“I think my endorsement deals increased based on my performance on the hill; I don’t know if the ESPYs had anything to do with that. There’s a certain level of prestige in winning that, but … I think it translated into word of mouth and people knowing you. That sometimes has a greater value than any price tag you can put on an endorsement deal.”
‘The 2019 ESPYs’
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for coarse language)