Caitlyn Jenner shouldn’t have had to defend herself on Wednesday night. She didn’t owe it to any of us. It was ESPN’s decision to honor her with the Arthur Ashe courage award, after all, so it wasn’t her responsibility to address those who believed she had no business being up there. But she did. And in doing so, Jenner showed exactly why she was worthy of the award.
Caitlyn Jenner accepts courage award: 'If you want to call me names, I can take it'
When the ESPYs decided to honor Jenner, the Olympic hero who came out as transgender in April, it set off an unprecedented backlash against what is normally the most innocuous, self-congratulatory of awards shows.
Some of the criticism came from those who believed Jenner didn’t deserve any more media attention because of her current fame. For better or worse, Jenner is now known as part of the Kardashian family, rather than for her past achievements as an Olympic gold medalist. The decision to hand her the award was even dismissed as a publicity stunt, a way to boost ratings for the ESPYs, which would be airing on ABC for the first time. NBC broadcaster Bob Costas, acting in his self-appointed role as the moral conscience of sports entertainment, called the move “a crass exploitation play, a tabloid play.”
Another criticism came from more socially conservative quarters. Some claimed that this was a competition that Jenner had “won,” and that in honoring Jenner, ESPN was somehow dishonoring other, more deserving, recipients. This argument persisted even after ESPN went on record to deny this was the case. Inevitably, many who followed this line of thinking responded with thinly veiled or outright transphobia.
In other words, there was a perfect storm of controversy, as the “LGBT community is the reason this country is going to hell” crowd and the “Kardashian family is the reason this country is going to hell” crowd joined forces. Partly because of this, and partly because the transgender community is still widely misunderstood, ESPN received far more resistance this year than they did when they gave the Arthur Ashe courage award to LGBT athletes Robin Roberts and Michael Sam in 2013 and 2014 respectively.
It also probably didn’t help ESPN that it’s been a long time since Jenner has been recognized primarily as an athlete. Her early retirement from decathlon, along with years of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, have corroded the cultural memory of her achievements. A significant portion of ESPN’s audience weren’t even born, or were too young to remember, when her gold medal performance at the 1976 Montreal Olympics made her one of the most popular athletes in the country. For this reason, the soft-focus feature that played before Jenner’s acceptance speech began with her athletic career, before transitioning into a discussion about her battles with gender dysphoria.
Jenner’s actual speech was mostly focused on her personal journey and her growing awareness of the transgender community. Until her concluding thoughts, she only briefly touched upon sports, giving credit to pioneering tennis player Renée Richards at one point, and acknowledging “all of the young trans athletes who are out there.”
However, she did address sports in her speech’s conclusion, perhaps the highlight of the evening, and it was in the context of answering her critics. Starting with an acknowledgment that she has advantages that most trans individuals don’t, Jenner admitted that she was “fortunate” while crediting athletics for being not just responsible for that success but with her very survival:
It is an honor to have the word “courage” associated with my life, but this night another word comes to mind: “fortunate.” I owe a lot to sports. It has shown me the world. It’s given me an identity. If someone wanted to bully me, well, you know what? I was the MVP of the football team. That wasn’t going to be much of a problem. If you want to call me names, doubt my intention, the reality is, I can take it.
But for thousands of kids out there coming to term with who they are, they shouldn’t have to take it. So for the people out there wondering what this is all about, whether it’s about courage or controversy or publicity, I’ll tell you what it’s all about: It’s about what happens from here. It’s not about one person, it’s about thousands of people. It’s not just about me.
It’s hard to imagine a better example of the positive impact that sports can have on an individual than what Jenner presented to us here. It was certainly more eloquent and convincing than anything Costas has been able to clumsily cobble together in recent years.
More importantly, though, Jenner recognized that because of her wealth, her fame, her potential media platforms and all of the other advantages that she has at her disposal, she is in a unique position to help transgender people. Jenner has been the target of a lot of criticism over the past months, but she knows that those in less privileged positions have it far worse. As Jenner noted at an earlier point in her speech: “They’re getting bullied, they’re getting beaten up, they’re getting murdered, they’re committing suicide.”
It took courage to come out as trans as publicly as Jenner did. It may have taken even more courage to come on stage, despite the opposition, and give the speech that she did.
LOS ANGELES -- Caitlyn Jenner accepted the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs on Wednesday night while urging acceptance for others who are transgender.
It was her first major public appearance since telling the world she is now a woman.
She received a standing ovation from some of the sporting world's biggest stars after her 10-minute speech during the annual awards honoring the year's top athletes and moments.
"This transition has been harder on me than anything I can imagine," said Jenner, who revealed she was in the process of becoming a woman in a televised interview with Diane Sawyer in April on ABC.
From the stage, Jenner thanked Sawyer, whom she called a friend.
Noting her powerful celebrity platform, the 1976 Olympic decathlon champion and current reality TV star vowed "to do whatever I can to reshape the landscape of how transgender people are viewed and treated."
Abby Wambach, of the U.S. soccer team that won the Women's World Cup, presented the trophy to Jenner, whose voice broke as she thanked members of her famous family, including stepdaughters Kim and Khloe Kardashian. Tears welled in the eyes of Jenner's younger daughter, Kylie, whose sister, Kendall, wiped a tear from her eye.
"I never wanted to hurt anyone else, most of all my family and my kids," said Jenner, wiping her eye.
She admitted that until earlier this year, she had never met another transgender person.
The 65-year-old told the audience about trans teenagers who are bullied, beaten up, murdered or kill themselves. Jenner mentioned two people by name whose deaths particularly touched her.
"Trans people deserve something vital, they deserve your respect," she said. "From that respect comes a more compassionate community."
Jenner urged the crowd, which included football, basketball, baseball and hockey superstars, to remember what they say and do is "absorbed and observed by millions of people, especially young people."
"My plea for you tonight is one join me in making this one of your issues, as well," she said.
Many in the crowd watched intently as Jenner spoke with little reaction on their faces.
"If you want to call me names, make jokes and doubt my intentions, go ahead because the reality is I can take it," she said. "But for thousands of kids out there coming to terms with the reality of who they are, they shouldn't have to take it."
A video narrated by "Mad Men" actor Jon Hamm traced Jenner's life from the time when she was known as Bruce Jenner to her current transition. She mentioned she once considered ending her own life with a gun she owned.
Caitlyn Jenner was shown applying makeup, buttoning her blouse in her closet and fastening the strap on her heeled shoes.
With her trembling hands clasped in front of her, Jenner joked with the audience about her struggle to select the cream gown she wore.
"OK girls, I get it," she said, as the audience laughed. "You've got to get the shoes, the hair, the makeup, it was exhausting. And the fashion police, please be kind on me. I'm new at this."
Jenner didn't walk the red carpet outside the Microsoft Theater in downtown Los Angeles, and she didn't appear backstage to talk with reporters, as most of the previous Ashe award recipients have done. ESPN said Jenner wanted her onstage comments to stand.
Reaction among Jenner's sporting peers on the red carpet was mixed. CBS Los Angeles reports Jenner was the hot topic among those arriving for the ceremony.
Jacksonville Jaguars tight end Julius Thomas told the station, "This is another unique thing that they're starting to incorporate (tolerance) into the sports world. We're all people."
Little League baseball pitcher Mo'ne Davis called Jenner "brave."
"She's really brave to have the courage to get through a lot of those things," said the 14-year-old who won best breakthrough athlete. "I know a lot of people give her a hard time about it, but just for her family to give her that support is amazing."
But former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield said, "I just know that's Bruce Jenner and I'll leave it at that."
He said more, though, to CBS Los Angeles: "I'm a Christian. I believe in the word of God, and I don't think people have the right to say, 'I wanna be something that I'm not."'
RadarOnline.com reported Wednesday that Jenner's representatives approached ESPN suggesting the network give her the Ashe award in exchange for plugs on her upcoming E! docuseries. ESPN and ABC are owned by Disney.
"That rumor is completely false," ESPN spokesman Josh Krulewitz said. "The Arthur Ashe Courage Award and ABC interview were never connected."
Jenner's publicist, Alan Nierob, called the report "utterly false" and had no further comment.
Jenner's selection to receive the Ashe award named for the late tennis player who died in 1993 after contracting AIDS from a blood transfusion generated strong debate online.
"I met Arthur Ashe a few times. I know how important education was to him," Jenner said. "Learn as much as you can about another person to understand them as well as you can."
Online critics said college basketball player Lauren Hill, who died of brain cancer in April, was deserving of the Ashe honor.
But Hill's mother, Lisa, attended the show and said her daughter would not have welcomed the controversy and made no judgment of others.
Jenner's series,called "I Am Cait," debuts July 26.
Bruce Jenner, who said he has long suffered from gender confusion, was re-introduced to the world as Caitlyn Jenner on June 1 with a flashy photo spread and feature story in Vanity Fair magazine.
Later that day, ESPN announced plans to give Jenner the award, which is presented "to individuals whose contributions transcend sports."
"Bruce has received many accolades over the years for being one of the greatest Olympians of our time but The ESPYs are honored to celebrate Bruce becoming Caitlyn," ESPYs executive producer Maura Mandt said.
"She has shown the courage to embrace a truth that had been hidden for years, and to embark on a journey that may not only give comfort to those facing similar circumstances, but can also help to educate people on the challenges that the transgender community faces."
Previous recipients of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award include Muhammad Ali, Jim Valvano, Pat Tillman, Robin Roberts and Nelson Mandela. Michael Sam, the first openly gay player to be drafted by an NFL team, received the honor last year.