• Entertainment

Caitlyn Jenner’s Speech at the ESPY Awards Was the Best of Sports

3 minute read

Even more than most awards ceremonies, the ESPY Awards have no real reason to exist. If there’s one professional class where performance is directly tied to receiving awards, it’s athletes. Stephen Curry already has won an NBA Championship as a direct result of his performance on the court, so it’s hard to imagine that the ESPY he won last night means that much.

And yet Caitlyn Jenner’s speech after winning a special award at the ceremony Wednesday night showed just what mass entertainment can do, and can bring, even to an unexpected audience. Watching sports is the most popular leisure pastimes in America, and yet the lessons sports media puts forward are usually intangibles so vague as to lack meaning: Grit, perseverance, inner strength. Jenner’s speech, by contrast, cut the pieties and ranged broadly over Jenner’s own life experiences, and made specific reference to work that needs to be done. It was eloquent, and an object lesson in the sort of bravery that’s the best of sports.

The Jenner news cycle has moved remarkably quickly since Jenner’s interview with Diane Sawyer this spring; so much press has swirled around Jenner, who’s also capitalized on opportunities to make her own reality show, that there have naturally been questions about Jenner’s motivations. Is this, in whole or in part, meant as a way to get press attention and cash? The speech, with its calls to action around the specific deaths of various trans people and the epidemic of bullying in schools, made clear that Jenner has sought the spotlight in order to promote an expansive platform of ideas around inclusion and tolerance. It’s not about her.

That principle of self-sacrifice for a greater goal is, indeed, the mentality of any championship-caliber athlete. There had been a weird tone around Jenner’s winning the ESPY Award, with sportscaster Bob Costas saying the award represented “crass exploitation” of Jenner’s celebrity status rather than the true meaning of sports, and false equivalencies drawn across the internet between Jenner’s bravery and that of military veterans. But the ESPY Award, on its own, is basically meaningless, a prize given so as to have a ratings-magnet TV show; it means nothing more than the way its recipient uses it. Jenner came into the ESPYs with a strategy to bring attention to the work others are already doing and the work many more need to join; it was executed with panache, skill, and not a little courage. It was a rebuttal to anyone who doubted she was still the same person who’d captivated America as the “world’s greatest athlete.”

See The Life of Caitlyn Jenner

1976 Olympic Games. Montreal, Canada. Men's Decathlon. USA's gold medal winner Bruce Jenner.
At the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, Bruce Jenner won the gold medal in the decathlon, setting the world record at 8,616 points.Getty Images
Bruce Jenner celebrates during his record setting performance in the decathlon in the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal.
Jenner became a national hero following his Olympic win and was later inducted into the Olympic Hall of Fame in 1986.Tony Duffy—Getty Images
NBC Sportscaster - Bruce Jenner
Jenner became an NBC Sportscaster in the late 1970s following his Olympic performance in Montreal.NBC/Getty Images
Bruce Jenner and Linda Thompson
Jenner married actress Linda Thompson, above, on Jan. 5, 1981, following his divorce with Chrystie Crownover.Getty Images
Nancy Reagan With Celebrities
Jenner was diagnosed with dyslexia as a child. In October of 1985, he received the Outstanding Learning Disabled Achiever Award from then-First Lady Nancy Reagan alongside stars such as Cher and Tom Cruise.Getty Images
Bruce Jenner
Jenner was a successful race car driver in the 1980s, though in a 2013 interview he said, "I was a lot more badass runner than I was a driver.”Ann Clifford—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Bruce And Kris
In 1991, Jenner married Kris Jenner, previously Kris Kardashian, just one month after she finalized her divorce from Robert Kardashian. The two had dated for only five months.Maureen Donaldson—Getty Images
Kardashian Jenner Family Portrait
Their marriage merged two already large families, evident here in this 1991 portrait.Donaldson Collection/Getty Images
Bruce Jenner
After his sports career, Jenner, seen here at a celebrity golf event in 1993, had a number of small acting jobs and television appearances.Stephen Dunn—Getty Images
"Cinderella" Release on Video
The family poses at an event in 1995, the year Jenner and Kris welcomed the first of their two children together, Kendall Jenner.Ron Galella—WireImage
Former US gold medal decathlete Bruce Jenner (C),
Kylie Jenner was born two years later in 1997. The girls can be seen here on the red carpet in 2000, long before they covered magazines and appeared on TIME's Most Influential Teens list.Scott Nelson—AFP/Getty Images
E! Entertainment Television's 2005 Summer Splash Event - Arrivals
Jenner, seen here in 2005, would re-enter the spotlight thanks to Keeping Up With the Kardashians, which first premiered in 2007.Steve Granitz—WireImage
Bruce Jenner
Jenner spoofed his reality-star fame with a commercial for Tropicana Juicy Rewards in 2010.AP
The Tonight Show With Jay Leno
Jenner and Kris, here at The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in 2011, announced their separation in 2013. She filed for divorce the following year.Kevin Winter—Getty Images
Bruce Jenner On "Extra"
Jenner poses with a box of Wheaties in 2012. He appeared on the front of the box first in 1977 after his Olympic gold-medal win, then in 2012 when Wheaties rolled out a retro series.Noel Vasquez—Getty Images
Brandon And Leah Album Release Party For "Cronies"
Jenner appears with two of his sons, TV personality Brody Jenner and musician Brandon Jenner, who records with his wife as Brandon & Leah, at an April 2013 release party.Chelsea Lauren—WireImage
Celebrity Sightings In Los Angeles - October 20, 2014
Jenner walks with step-daughter Kim Kardashian in October of 2014 — about five months after rapper Kanye West became his son-in-law.Bauer-Griffin—GC Images
Bruce Jenner Vanity Fair Caitlyn transgender
Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce Jenner, appeared as a woman for the first time on the cover of Vanity Fair's June 2015 issue, photographed by Annie Leibovitz.Annie Leibovitz—Vanity Fair
The 2Caitlyn Jenner 2015 Espys Arther Ashe Award015 ESPYS - Show
Caitlyn Jenner accepts the Arthur Ashe Courage Award onstage during The 2015 ESPYS at Microsoft Theater on July 15, 2015 in Los Angeles.Kevin Winter—Getty Images

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