THE BLOG

ESPYS: The ESPY Awards Embodies the Essence of Commitment and Awareness

07/14/2014 06:09 pm ET | Updated Sep 13, 2014

The ESPYS is more than a celebration of athletic achievement. It's a gathering of athletes and entertainers who band together in utilizing their collective platforms to fight against cancer in hopes of finding a cure for it.

The V-Foundation, named after the late Jim Valvano, has raised over $115 million dollars to fight against cancer. In its 22nd year, the V-Foundation has strived to bring awareness to the disease while helping to fund various research efforts to help save lives.

ESPN sports personality Stuart Scott continues to battle against cancer. Events like the ESPYS are to be applauded for highlighting marquee personalities like Scott, who persistently continues to fight. He embodies the essence of Valvano's famous words of "Don't give up. Don't ever give up."

While visible strides have been made with regards to cancer research, we still have a ways to go in battling the various societal ills that still hamper this country. The ESPYS are certainly doing their part by fostering cultural and social awareness.

Racism and bigotry can be characterized as the ultimate thieves of opportunity. Much like cancer, it's a social disease that touches us all either directly or indirectly. In battling the ugliness of racism, the late Arthur Ashe -- who also courageously battled another dreaded disease for which there is no cure, in AIDS -- once stated, "AIDS killed my body but racism is harder to bear. It kills the soul."

In honor of Ashe's humble persistence, the ESPYS named the award they give to athletes who display courage in the face of adversity. For instance, the 2011 winners of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award were Tommie Smith and John Carlos. In 1968, both athletes stood front and center as the world bore witness to the Olympic sprinters utilize their platform in taking a stand against the racial inequities that abound in both society and sport.

The year 1968 can be characterized as the apex of the civil rights movement and also the most volatile. In 1968 we saw the likes of Martin Luther King and presidential hopeful Bobby Kennedy slain by assassins. In sport we bore witness to the revolt of the black athlete which culminated with Smith and Carlos utilizing their athletic platforms in the name of change.

Some of the most noted progressions we've witnessed in American culture first manifested in sport. When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, it helped fuel the civil rights movement in society. When asked about sport being utilized as a catalyst for change, ESPN's Vice President and Executive Producer of ESPN Films and Original Content Connor Schell stated:

At their best, sports are a unifying cultural force. We have certainly used awards in the ESPYS to showcase individuals who are standing up against bigotry and intolerance as well as other individual and collective courage to put the spotlight on important issues.

Michael Sam is the 2014 recipient of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. Earlier this year Sam announced to the world he was gay. His bold proclamation sent shockwaves through the sports world. While advances have been made along racial and gender lines, the idea of having a gay NFL player is new to groundbreaking.

Despite the potential ridicule from a segment of an unsympathetic athletic population and a partially intolerant society, Sam stood tall in proclaiming he intends to live his life the way he likes. His stance has likely fueled other gay athletes to eventually walk through the door he boldly opened in the NFL.

When asked about the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage, Schell offered the following:

Through the Arthur Ashe Award, the ESPYS strive to shine a spotlight on the courageous acts of individuals in the sports world whose actions change the broader culture. The show is designed to celebrate the best moments in sports and against that backdrop, it is the appropriate place to honor the actions of these courageous individuals.

Unfortunately we still live in a society where ignorance and bigotry can sometimes triumph over sensitivity and equity. Last season when Philadelphia wide receiver Riley Cooper uttered the N-word for all to see and hear it reminded us even in the city of brotherly love the ugliness of racism still abounds.

When Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder defiantly showcases a lack of respect and sensitivity to the Native American population by refusing to change the name of his team, it demonstrates an element of the "good-ol'-boy" mentality that still exists in the upper estuaries of power.

Donald Sterling's private conversation that went public reminds us collectively we can no longer ignore the level of ignorance that still prevails in this country.

I have long advocated athletes speak out on so-called controversial issues. Athletes like LeBron James and icons like Michael Jordan have utilized their vast platforms to denounce bigotry. Much like the ESPYS fight against cancer, James and Jordan took strong stances in denouncing the offensive rhetoric Donald Sterling recently spewed.

Jordan stated:

As an owner, I'm obviously disgusted that a fellow team owner could hold such sickening and offensive views. I'm confident that Adam Silver will make a full investigation and take appropriate action quickly. As a former player, I'm completely outraged.

James suggested, "There's no room for that in our game."

I embrace the ESPYS and ESPN because they provide the necessary atmosphere to constructively communicate on hot-button topics. Maura Mandt is the Executive Producer for the ESPYS. She offered the following:

What's great is that when something happens in sports, it does resonate more... there is the opportunity to move the needle. When we are able to talk about things like civil rights (Tommie Smith and John Carlos), the Afghanistan war and the fight for rights of women (2006 Ashe Award), Apartheid (Nelson Mandela), or this year as we honor Michael Sam, the first openly gay player in the NFL, I am extremely proud of those moments and I do believe that they are unique to this show because of the sport connection.

I believe the media population, with regards to race and gender, should better reflect the athletic population being covered. For instance, if 75 percent of the NBA players are of African-American descent, yet over 90 percent of all news and commentary is edited, written and reported by whites, the racial disparity is simply too large.

Mandt stated the following when asked about racial and gender equity in sports media:

My father was a very important influence for me. He taught me to always respect history and be aware of those who had sacrificed before me to make it possible for me to live out the dreams I had.

Mandt continues,

When I was still in college studying journalism -- the story of Lisa Olson was in the news (the Boston Globe reporter who was not allowed in the Patriots locker room.) This was something we talked about in our journalism class, and when I first interned at a local station in Detroit the next year only a handful of women were working on SportsCenter. I would not be able to be doing what I am doing without those who blazed the trail.

Dr. Richard Lapchick, who heads TIDES (The Institute of Diversity and Ethics in Sports) proposed the following statement:

Is the coverage of athletes and sports in the media fair and accurate when women and people of color are the subjects of the reporting? Are women and people of color fairly represented on today's newspaper and website sports department staffs? How would a more diverse staff of sports editors, columnists and reporters affect what is commonly written about in our newspapers? These are the key positions where decisions on what is covered, who covers it and who offers opinions on it are made.

In closing, I've long embraced the notion of sport being a mirror image of society. It's the one domain humans largely abandon preconceived notions to unite for a worthy cause while simultaneously rallying around a common goal.

The ESPYS continue to serve as a catalyst for change in its commitment to find a cure for cancer while providing a platform to acknowledge athletes for their greatness and courage. This marquee event brings the world of sport and entertainment together to increase cultural awareness and contribute to societal efforts that are far from being complete.