The celebrity-driven worlds of entertainment and sports are set to collide Wednesday at L.A Live’s Microsoft Theater for the annual ESPY Awards, which honor the year’s top sports moments and achievements.
The show, which will air on ABC, could almost give itself an award now for the cultural moment ahead — the first major public appearance by Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce Jenner, the Olympic gold medal winner and reality star of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” Jenner is to receive the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage, so named for the universally admired tennis player who died in 1993 and was famous for his steely determination and sense of personal dignity.
While Jenner has been widely praised for her bravery — she even received a shout-out from President Obama — and has become a leading figure in elevating awareness about transgender identity, her ESPY’s honor has not sat well with everyone.
Sportscaster Bob Costas called the award to Jenner “a crass exploitation play, a tabloid play,” while others lamented that Jenner’s selection pushed out lesser-known, more deserving candidates for the honor. Casting a further shadow on the pick is industry speculation about an alleged deal between the network and Jenner for the Ashe award as a payoff for the exclusive sit-down interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer that aired in April and drew huge ratings.
ESPY producers this week continued to defend their choice of Jenner and insisted that there was no quid pro quo arrangement.
“There is absolutely no connection between the interview and the award,” said an ABC spokesperson. “There’s simply no truth to that claim.”
But that denial has done little to quiet the debate, fueled by the argument that the honor seems to be more about ratings and the relentless Kardashian hype machine than merit. Several members of the Kardashian family, including Kim, are expected to attend — and may walk the red carpet.
“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,” said Frank Deford, a National Public Radio commentator and sportswriter, in an interview with The 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.
“Courage is usually involved with overcoming something,” added Deford, who co-wrote a book about Ashe’s life with the tennis legend. “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.”
In a June interview with sports radio host Dan Patrick, Costas said he wished Jenner “all the happiness and … peace of mind in the world,” before adding, “I’m pretty sure they could have found someone who was much closer to being actively involved in sports, who would have been more deserving of what this award represents.”
Some observers on social media have also pointed out the irony with Jenner in particular receiving the Ashe trophy. The tennis champion was as beloved for his understated, thoughtful personality and political activism off the court as he was for his expert play on it. In contrast, Jenner has reveled in his role in the Kardashian media circus where self-promotion and conspicuous material consumption are often celebrated.
ESPN executives are standing by their decision.
“The Arthur Ashe Courage Award is meant to honor individuals whose contributions transcend sports through courageous action,” said an ESPN spokesperson. “Sometimes that courage is demonstrated over the course of a lifetime, and sometimes it is demonstrated in a single act that shines a light on an important contemporary issue. At all times, there are many worthy candidates. This year, we are proud to honor Caitlyn Jenner embracing her identity and doing so in a public way to help move forward a constructive dialogue about progress and acceptance.”
The ESPY honor has also drawn support from advocacy groups, including the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).
“Caitlyn Jenner had to transition in the face of unimaginable public scrutiny, and in doing so has helped people around the world understand more about what it means to be transgender,” said Nick Adams, a transgender man who is GLAAD’s director of programs for transgender media. “The award recognizes her courageous act and acknowledges that transgender people can also be celebrated as heroes.”
Other questions surround Jenner’s glorious, but singular connection to the sports world. Jenner largely walked away from all associations with athletics almost four decades ago after the 1976 Olympics.
Most recipients of the Ashe award, including Billie Jean King, Muhammad Ali and gay football player Michael Sam, have had a more consistent relationship to sports.
One possible candidate for the Ashe honor who was passed over in favor of Jenner was Lauren Hill. The 19-year-old freshman from Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati battled an inoperable brain tumor to achieve her dream of playing college basketball, while also helping to raise money for cancer research. She died in April.
Another often cited is Noah Galloway, an Iraqi war veteran who lost two limbs but has continued to enter competitions, including an inspiring run on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.”
Even Kevin Frazier, a co-anchor of “Entertainment Tonight,” a show that usually breathlessly covers the Kardashians, seemed unimpressed with the Jenner choice.
“Make no mistake, what Caitlyn did was courageous,” Frazier said on a segment of the show last month. “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 for pediatric cancer. That is why I feel she is deserving of the award.”
Wednesday’s ceremony is expected to further boost anticipation for the July 26 premiere of Jenner’s E! Entertainment series “I Am Cait.”
The series, which will document Jenner’s transition, will join a slew of other series linked to the Kardashian flashy brand of so-called reality television.
Labeled as a docuseries, the program is supposed to chronicle Jenner’s journey as a transgender woman. But it’s expected that the show will be similar in flavor to other Kardashian-centric programs, which are known for being heavily produced and managed by the family.
Jenner is an executive producer of the series, which is being put together by Bunim-Murray, the same production company behind the other Kardashian series as well as “The Real World,” “Bad Girls Club” and “Project Runway.”
Despite the rise in the importance of sports programming, the ESPYs have never really hit it big in ratings. That could change this year, particularly given the show’s move from cable to broadcast.
“They’re looking for a wider audience,” said Brad Adgate, president of the ad-buying firm Horizon Media. “People will probably tune in to this one. They will want to hear what Caitlyn has to say.”
‘The 2015 ESPYs’
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
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