Monday on the Dan Patrick Show, guest and veteran sports anchor Bob Costas weighed in against the recent choice of ESPN to award Caitlyn Jenner the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at this year’s ESPY awards. Certainly, as a sports fan, it does seem a bit out of left field to bestow the network’s most prestigious award on Jenner, who is far more widely known for her reality TV career than she is for anything she did in track and field.
Many people are rubbed the wrong way by Bob Costas, and with good cause. Costas can feel full of himself, saccharin sweet and incongruent with certain issues in sports. He often appears to believe that he’s more of an authority than anyone else and that he has a pretty high opinion of himself. His honeysuckle, soft-focus backstory sketches of athletes you’ve never heard of during the Olympics make each and every one seem like they’ve overcome incredible hardships to be where they are today. To accomplish this, they cherry-pick the profile they need and ram it on home in the name of ratings. Bob Costas is an entertainer, and entertainers need you to be entertained.
Caitlyn Jenner is also primarily known as an entertainer.
ESPN is also an entertainment entity, covering the world of sports in what has become the douchiest possible manner in the most monopolistic way with a knack for furthering their own agenda and hiring as many asshats as possible. But they’re not all bad, either. There are some gems hidden in the quagmire of windbags, you just have to keep an eye out for them.
The Espy’s are ESPN’s annual award gala, which is also entertainment. I just want to be really clear about the players in this minor conundrum. What we have, very clearly, is one entertainer on a talk show with another entertainer, talking about a third entertainer who will be appearing on an entertainment show. And if we go even one more meta step, you’re reading about it from me to be (hopefully) entertained, or at the very least not bored.
Costas doesn’t happen to bother me as much as other people, and I found his comments very measured. Around the web he’s being vilified for having the gaul to say his opinion, even though Dan Patrick agreed with him. But I can see how someone might find it disingenuous for a man who has lived his life in search of ratings take ESPN behind the woodshed for what he claims is just a play for ratings.
“I wish 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,” Costas said on Monday. “In the broad world of sports, I’m pretty sure they could’ve found someone — and this is not anything against Caitlyn Jenner — who was much closer to actively involved in sports, who would’ve been deserving of what that award represents.”
Costas never says Jenner isn’t deserving of the award, and his comments about her are courteous and well meaning. What he says is that, in his opinion, ESPN could have found a more deserving recipient in the current world of sport.
And you know what? He’s actually right on all counts. A huge part of this decision is ratings based. You’d be a fool to believe it isn’t, and Costas knows that. He’d love to be the one to intro Caitlyn to the world on national television. Anyone in the sports media machine would. I’m not going to rail against Bob Costas and call him a douche because of this. I mean, he may very well be a douche, but I hate how every opinion piece (especially on the internet) has to polarize everyone into deciding someone is 100 percent wrong or 100 percent right.
Maybe Costas was hoping that this award was above ratings. It has certainly been the one sports award over the years that has somehow seemed to mean more than the others. With past recipients like the beloved Jim Valvano and Nelson Mandela and Pat & Kevin Tillman and cancer survivor Robin Roberts, it’s understandable to at least hope that this award is above the fracas of workaday concerns like ratings.
And just because Costas isn’t necessarily wrong, it doesn’t mean that ESPN is, either. The definition of the award is for someone who does something that “transcends sport.” Last year, the Ashe Award went to NFL football player Michael Sam for having the courage to come out publicly as the first gay professional football player. I think it was a perfect tribute to the spirit and courage of the eponymous Arthur Ashe, and the same concerns were registered last year against Sam’s selection. It’s just for ratings. He doesn’t ‘deserve’ it. But that award did wonders for the gay and lesbian community and helped pave the way to more universal acceptance of homosexuality in sports. Can a man be both gay and a football player? It seems like in 2015 this should be a non-story. There shouldn’t be a single sliver of the population that has trouble with that question. Only weeks ago I sat here at my laptop, with Lady Castleton rubbing my shoulders as I blubbered out the final results of the Irish referendum on gay marriage to my kids, telling them through streaming tears that they were growing up in a more complicated world, but a better one. It shouldn’t have to mean this much, but it does. Every step, no matter how small, matters.
That’s where we’re headed with our transgender community. This shouldn’t be a thing. This shouldn’t require courage. But from the success of the television show Transparent to the current Caitlyn Jenner media blitz, transgender issues are front and center. That’s a great thing. For too long, issues like these have kept members of our community in the shadows, forced to cope with unthinkable difficulties in the absence of societal sympathy, understanding or awareness. Giving the Ashe award to Caitlyn Jenner is a tribute to every member of the transgender community who has felt backs turned on them, and while it may feel like it’s not directly in the arena of current sports, per se, it’s timely and important. And, for what it’s worth, the Decathalon that Bruce Jenner won is widely considered the highest accomplishment in sports, and the most grueling event in the Olympic games.
One last note on this: I abhor reality television, and I’m not alone. Perhaps there’s some innate resistance to the pick because some people see the elevation of Caitlyn Jenner in this way as a tacit acceptance of the Kardashianing of America. Truly, I have a bias that I’ll call myself out on. Because, and correct me if I’m wrong, in the case of Kim Kardashian specifically, didn’t she become widely well known because she appeared in a sex tape with a minor ‘celebrity’? I have no problem with consenting adults taping themselves, but that strikes me as a pretty low bar for someone to become a ubiquitous presence in American pop culture and to be a tastemaker and to be so ‘famous’ that everyone in her family, regardless of their particular merit or appeal, also attains this mysteriously coveted National Enquirer celebrity status.
In some ways, fine, whatever. They all need to get theirs while they can, but from what I’ve seen of reality television, especially the flagship shows like “Jersey Shore” and “Survivor” and “Real Housewives” and the like, all we’re doing is marketing mental illness and calling it entertainment. The craziest bitches get all the headlines. The biggest assholes steal the show. It’s kind of disheartening that as we take the time to raise up Caitlyn Jenner for the courage it takes to be a member of that particular world and the intense visibility and scrutiny that goes with it and to yet make a choice like she did, we’re letting all the rest of the members of that world get a pass.
On any given day, on any given reality show, you can just sit back and go “narcissist, co-dependent, bipolar, manic-depressive, undiagnosed borderline personality disorder, clinical depression, eating disorder, sociopath…” and on and on. I think producers originally tapped into the schadenfreude of it all, but it became clear that the craziest people drew the most viewers, so shows sprung up where you’re just watching generations of interbred mental illness at work. It’s truly sad to see. And even more terrifying is that less worldly segments of the population are missing the concept that these are the freaks at a traveling circus and are using the shows’ behaviors as a road map. At least when people stared at the bearded lady of ages past, they didn’t think “I should grow a beard, too.”
Alas, there’s always more work to do, and hopefully someday in the future, with more awareness of mental illness, viewing audiences will be less interested in that type of entertainment. Until then, we can take pride in the small victories, like this bit on ‘Weekend Update’ on SNL where Colin Jost and Michael Che take a potential presidential candidate to task for his preposterous stance on homosexuality:
CHE - “Potential Republican Presidential candidate, Dr. Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon, said this week that homosexuality is a choice because many people go to prison straight and ‘when they come out, they’re gay.’ Like how in that last sentence Dr. Carson went in as a neurosurgeon and came out as a complete idiot.”
JOST - “Dr. Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon, said this week that homosexuality is a choice. Carson make the comments to himself over and over in the men’s’ locker room.”
CHE - “Dr. Ben Carson a candidate for President, said that homosexuality is a choice: Unfortunately for him, so are elections.”
JOST - “I guess we were piling on a little bit there. This just in, Dr. Ben Carson, a candidate for President, is no longer a candidate for President.”
We can also take pride in the larger wins. The country of Ireland. The tenor or a nation who has largely embraced Caitlyn Jenner and a movement of inclusivity and acceptance. We can keep working hard to imprint good values of diversity and acceptance in our children so that awards for courage of this kind are no longer necessary, and word of someone in the public eye like Caitlyn Jenner will be as boring and toothless as any Kim Kardashian sound bite.