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.”
Read more: LA Times