Jenner's message more important than the messenger


ike many of you, I turned on the ESPY Awards last week, not so much on purpose as it was a last resort.


The two days following the Major League Baseball All-Star Game are notoriously lacking in sports content. With NBA summer league action as the only other alternative, it seemed that athletes and celebrities giving themselves awards based on achievements that, in some instances, felt like they occurred years and years ago, was my best bet for an active sports appetite.

One of the bright spots of the evening was an emotional tribute and speech given by Devon Still, whose 5-year-old daughter Leah's very public bout with cancer has been both inspirational, as well as a fine example of the powers of social media. Still, a practice squad player with the Cincinnati Bengals, gained a following due to, in part, his posts on Twitter and Instagram showing Leah as she promised to "beat up cancer," along with photos and videos of the pair.

There have been television specials, social media campaigns and even a pledge from the NFL to donate money raised from Still's jersey sales to cancer research since Leah's story gained fame. For that fight, the two deservedly received the Jimmy V Award for perseverance.

Leah accepted hers through a pre-recorded video message thanking everyone in attendance, including the award's presenter, a visibly emotional LeBron James.

As I scanned social media during the event, the outpouring of support for the Still family was immense. The showing of love was incredible — a true reminder of how sports can transcend race, culture and interest. It didn't matter if you were a fan of the Bengals, the NFL, or even know how football works. You understood the importance of the platform given to Still. The message of a father being there for his daughter as she battles a debilitating disease was amazing.

While there were plenty of smiles on the Internet during that presentation, the next award to be presented, the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, would spur a stark, and ugly, turn.

Caitlyn Jenner, famous for her recent transition from life as Bruce — the 1976 decathlon Olympic gold medalist and subsequent American icon for all things masculine — was set to give her speech.

It's arguably been the biggest story of 2015. On the heels of a candid interview with Diane Sawyer, "Caitlyn's journey," Jenner now has her own reality show on the E! network. Leaving the Kardashian clan craze aside, Jenner's transition has gone under the harsh microscope of humanity.

Everyone has an opinion, and for the most part, they're all polarizing.

Jenner's speech was filled with positivity, as she chose to shine a light on the transgender community as a whole, rather than her own story.

"If you want to call me names, make jokes, doubt my intentions, go ahead," Jenner said. "The reality is, I can take it. But for the thousands of kids out there coming to terms with being true to who they are, they shouldn't have to take it."

It's true, people shouldn't have to take it. Whatever your beliefs are on the matter (and really, it shouldn't matter, because there is a right way to look at this, as well as a wrong way), the number of people who struggle with their personal identity, from gender to sexual preference, is large. These people are beaten, bullied, harassed and even murdered. To make matters worse, UCLA's The Williams Institute found back in March that 41 percent of trans- or gender non-conforming people have attempted suicide.

Many were displeased with Jenner's controversial selection for the honor, and thought that there were more deserving candidates like the late Lauren Hill — a women's college basketball player who worked to get on the court and raise money for her own fight before cancer took her life — or Leah Still herself.

Those stories are special, and each received its own spotlight during the award show.


There were also photos of Army veterans, each with an incredible story and showing of true bravery, floating around social media. Many were accompanied with some sort of message, claiming that they were "runners up" to Jenner's selection for the award.

For the record, they weren't. ESPN has confirmed there were no back-ups for the honor.

So there was Jenner, draped in a flowing white evening gown. Her struggle, while outwardly obvious given her change in appearance, was just as difficult on the inside, according to her speech.

The Internet can be a scary place, as evidenced by the intolerance directed at Jenner during the ceremony, and in the days after it. It's one thing for the public outcry to be that of confusion. This is a situation that even those sympathetic to the cause don't always pretend to understand.

To want to silence her speech altogether, however, is just wrong.

It's important to remember that Jenner is not the first major athlete to undergo this transition. That distinction is likely claimed by Renee Richards. The tennis player began her career as Richard Raskind, and finished it as a woman, but not before she was a mixed doubles semifinalist in the 1979 U.S. Open.

Many have said that Richards is more deserving of the honor. Perhaps that's so.

Jenner has given the public zero confidence that her journey isn't completely about personal gain, considering the last few years of her life — as Bruce — were spent in the limelight as part of America's famous K-themed family. Were ratings considered? Absolutely. There's no question that ESPN's moving the program to ABC for the promise of a more diverse audience was calculated.

All that being said, was it really so terrible that Jenner was given the chance to shine light on an issue that Americans still have very little understanding of? Could it be that, despite all the money, the fame and publicity she was the beneficiary of — all of which the majority of other trans people could never dream of — that the message was still the most important.

Every cause needs a spokesperson, someone to deliver the story of a group that may have a hard time finding its voice. For Still, his daughter's positivity was a great example of a message relayed through someone else. Bravery comes in all forms. It doesn't have to be someone dealing with disease or overcoming wounds from war.

So maybe Jenner wasn't completely received with the open arms she deserved. What she was actually saying was much more important.

Organized sports can often go beyond its boundaries. With a new audience tuning in, joining sports faithful, ESPN delivered a powerful dispatch.

Hopefully that's what sticks with us.