The decision by ESPN to award Caitlyn Jenner the Arthur Ashe Courage Award has been, to put it mildly, controversial. Pundits in the sports and political world have debated the issue since it was first announced, with quite a few of them suggesting other people as being more worthy.
Names mentioned as alternates include Lauren Hill, the 19 year old who played in a college basketball game five months before dying of a rare form of brain cancer or Noah Galloway, an Iraqi war veteran who suffered the amputation of his left arm above the elbow, his left leg above the knee due to an IED and, despite these injuries, participates in extreme sports.
Robert Valvano recently commented on the issue on his Facebook page. He is certainly qualified to speak on this subject with authority due to not only his long association with sports analysis and coaching but because his late brother, Jim Valvano, was the first recipient of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award on March 3rd, 1993. Jim Valvano passed away on April 28th, 1993 from a rare form of cancer less than two months after receiving the award and speaking at the ESPY award show which was presented by ESPN.
During his acceptance speech Jim Valvano had this to say:
“To me, there are three things we all should do every day. We should do this every day of our lives. Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. And number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy. But think about it. If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.”
He ended his speech by saying: “Cancer can take away all of my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever. I thank you and God bless you all.”
Here is the full video and transcript of Jim Valvano’s speech from March 3rd, 1993.
So when Jim’s brother Robert decided to speak about the ESPY decision on Caitlyn Jenner it should finally put this issue to rest. This writer is truly unable to think of anyone more qualified and knowledgeable to speak on this subject.
Mr Valvano’s Facebook Post
This is the full text of Robert Valvano’s Facebook Post
(This is long even by my wordy standards, but the topic is emotional and not simple, so I hope you will understand…)
“I have delayed making any comments on Caitlyn Jenner receiving the Arthur Ashe Award this Wednesday for the simple reason I was not sure how I felt about it.
A number of media folks have inquired about my thoughts since my brother Jim was the very first recipient, and they want to know how my family or I might feel about this.
It is an emotionally charged, in many ways, confusing story to respond to, but let me start with the easy stuff and move on to the more challenging.
First, there are many who don’t like this decision and show their disdain by becoming dismissive, suggesting the award is meaningless and should simply be ignored.
You may be displeased however much you wish with the selection, but I certainly disagree that it is meaningless. Bob Costas told me once that with ESPN’s might behind it, the ESPY’s in time would have been successful anyway, but Jim’s speech that first year gave it a substance and a foothold it would have taken many years to get without it.
I think there is truth to that… Young middle school kids who weren’t even born when Jim gave that speech routinely do it for their school classes and it resonates as much today as ever.
All that came about because of this award, so I think the argument that it can be easily dismissed is foolish.
I also think the thought that Jenner’s gold medal is so long ago, it somehow makes him irrelevant, is flawed as well. There are 12 American athletes IN HISTORY to win Decathlon gold.
Those types of athletes in the world of sport earn lifetime passes of relevancy. It is why Bill Russell can be at the NBA Finals, or Jim Brown is still sought for comments on the NFL. Their achievements are so rare as to be timeless.
The case of other worthy people to consider is an easy one too. Of course there are others. The human spirit is amazing, indomitable, inspiring, limitless… While not common, we see examples of this every day. It is one of the reasons we celebrate sports, one of the reasons, one could contend, the ESPY’s exist at all, to celebrate this spirit.
So, for sure there were others considered as they should have been, but there is no “voting” etc. for this award. That isn’t how it works, so the thought that so-and-so was second in the voting is not just incorrect, in minimizes both the award winner AND that other person as well who sounds like somehow they “lost” something.
No. No “losers” in this process.
Finally, I don’t pretend to speak for anyone else in our family, or the V Foundation. They’re all big boys and girls and can speak for themselves.
So that’s the easy, or at least easier, stuff.
The complicated stuff is also obvious.
Should Jenner be given the award?
The main names that have been floated out there as more deserving are the late Lauren Hill, the 19 year old who despite brain cancer, fulfilled her dream of playing in a college basketball game, and Noah Galloway the amputee war veteran who competed on DANCING WITH THE STARS, is a fitness trainer and competitive athlete.
Certainly either of them are also very courageous and deserving.
A significant difference, though, in discussing this situation, is that the courage that both showed is more easily relatable for most people. In Hill’s case, many of us intimately know someone who fought or is fighting cancer, and we appreciate the often devastatingly painful challenge it presents. The idea of persisting through that to play college basketball just a few months before losing your life to cancer, is easy for us to get our heads wrapped around.
In Galloway’s case, whether we were ourselves in the military or not, we can easily appreciate the courage it takes, and be grateful for the sacrifice made, to be out there in this ever increasingly crazed world, to try and protect freedom and in many tangible ways make life better for the every day citizens, for you and me.
Again… No one is arguing the courage of these two, or perhaps even some others I didn’t mention.
With Caitlyn Jenner, it is not as easily relatable. I don’t, at least knowingly, have any people in my life that are transgender. I can’t speak from first hand experience of the hardship and challenges they may face. Unlike the other two instances, I don’t have people in my life I can use as frames of reference.
I consciously try, both professionally and personally, to be a person that attempts, at the very least, to treat all people with respect, and make an attempt at least at understanding. In this case, it is a particular challenge, since I have essentially no experience.
I can tell you I met and talked with Bruce Jenner about 6 or 7 years ago, at an ESPY related event. He was very nice, pleasant, rather quiet and subdued despite being in the public eye for most of his life. I would have had no way of knowing if and how he was suffering from his situation.
So I have tried to learn, and what I have learned is most trusted experts think a person’s sexuality and “make up”, if you will, is a matter of simply how they are wired.
Moreover, fifteen seconds of reading about what being transgender means leads to a litany of terms and expressions with which I, and many others, I am sure, would not be familiar.
There are many issues in this world where I think collectively we are not quite up to speed, but on this topic we are positively in the Stone Age.
Which is precisely part of why this is a difficult conundrum. There are many, many people who don’t wish to be brought up to speed on this subject, certainly not during a sports awards show.
In much the same way as when I discussed the same sex marriage law, there are those who are not gay bashing haters, but who feel, on their spiritual path, that this too is simply wrong.
This is not the place, nor my intent, to open a debate about that… But I do think knowing that, knowing how ignorant many are about this, and seeing how vitriolic the pushback has been on this, it seems naive not to at least acknowledge that Jenner’s decision required a certain element of courage.
If you read about the outcome for people who are “wired” as Jenner is, you see all too often that the frustration of living a life of a lie, trapped as they seem to feel, creates an outcome that, sadly, often is suicide.
If Jenner doing what she has helps prevent this segment of our population from taking that awful step, the substance that people hope to see from this award will again be materialized.
Having had experience with THAT awful tragedy, someone taking their own life, I think I speak for many when I say anything that significantly helps prevent suicide is certainly worthwhile.
One other argument with which I take exception is that which says, you are simply rewarding Jenner for a lifestyle choice. THAT I do disagree with. A “lifestyle choice” is deciding between Art Deco and Early American for the den, or deciding, the hell with saving for retirement, I’m going to Acapulco for a month. Again, you don’t have to agree with the choice, but don’t trivialize the real pain and trauma that a transgender person endures. That serves no useful purpose in the discussion.
So with all that said, how do I feel about the award? I think the answer lies in seeing what she says, how she says it, what of substance comes from it. That may not be fair, but I think Noah Galloway, for example, could say nothing at all, or simply by reflecting on the events at the end of Lauren Hill’s life, many millions of people would have easily related and been moved and inspired.
Perhaps irrationally, I have a little proprietary thing with the Ashe Award (and the Jimmy V Award) because I see what a catalyst they can be…Jim’s speech, Stuart Scott’s speech… They will resonate with people for a long, long time. Will this award do that this year? I don’t know… But I also don’t think that means it’s a bad choice.
“People are asked occasionally to be courageous at times that are not convenient for others.” This sums up the entire argument, this one sentence.
Given the support his post has received thus far it certainly seems to sum it up for quite a few people.
People are asked occasionally to be courageous at times that are not convenient for others.” Robert Valvano
About Robert Valvano
College Basketball Analyst
Host of “The V Show”
Robert Valvano, the youngest of the three Valvano brothers, brings years of coaching, analysis and commentary to the sports world.
During college basketball season, he is an analyst for ESPN2, ESPNU and ESPN Plus and primarily covers Big East basketball. Valvano also serves as a radio and television analyst for University of Louisville men’s basketball. In addition, Valvano is the host of The V Show with Bob Valvano, a weekend show on ESPN Radio.
Before entering broadcasting full-time as a commentator and analyst, Valvano coached 19 seasons of basketball. His coaching career included positions at Bellarmine University (1994-1998), St. Mary’s College (1992-1994) and Catholic University (1989-1992).
Editor’s note: This piece was originally published to Robert Valvano’s facebook page, and is republished here with his gracious permission.