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Awards For Athletes Should Honor Unsung Heroes

American tennis champion Arthur Robert Ashe Jr. (1943 - 1993) was the first black player to win a major men's tennis tournament in 1985.
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American tennis champion Arthur Robert Ashe Jr. (1943 - 1993) was the first black player to win a major men's tennis tournament in 1985.

Something of a cause célèbre has developed because ESPN has decided to present the Arthur Ashe Courage Award to Caitlyn Jenner. The ceremony will take place at its annual ESPYs award show in July.

Around 1980, shortly after I had helped Ashe write an autobiography, I got a call from the leader of a powerful political faction. The group wanted to increase its appeal to minorities by presenting an award to a tennis player who aided the cause of minorities in the sport. They asked if I would chair a committee to select such a person.

I agreed because I thought it was an opportunity to honor a selfless hero. Joining me on the panel was Gladys Heldman, a progressive tennis magazine publisher, and Pancho Gonzales, a rare minority tennis champion. Pancho pretty much deferred to Gladys and me, and after proper due diligence we picked a wonderful couple who had developed a successful urban tennis program in a major city. Let us call them the "Shermans."

I phoned back the hot-shot political contact and said we had selected the Shermans, and then I lauded their many outstanding accomplishments. But there was only dead silence on the end of the phone, until the voice finally said: "But you were supposed to pick Arthur Ashe." They had figured we were patsies who would make the obvious choice and give them the celebrity to exploit their cause.

Gladys, Pancho and I all loved Arthur, but we refused to budge. The Shermans were so perfectly deserving. Finally, in desperation, an adviser for the politicians suggested we split the award and present it to both the Shermans and Ashe. Gladys and Pancho and I went along, but when the press release came out, it trumpeted the selection of Ashe, with only nominal attention paid to the Shermans.

I never told Arthur the story because I knew he would've been mortified that he had been exploited. It would also diminish the credit that should have gone to the unheralded couple, who were devoting themselves so generously to working, without publicity, for inner-city minorities.

If ESPN had the grace — indeed, if it possessed the courage of Arthur Ashe — the network would have presented the Arthur Ashe Courage Award to some unknown transgender person who does not have an Olympic gold medal or a reality show. They would give it to someone who has been an unsung model of that sort of person, struggling mightily through life, seeking, in quiet privacy, to find equilibrium, identity and peace.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank Deford died on Sunday, May 28, at his home in Florida. Remembrances of Frank's life and work can be found in All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and on NPR.org.
Frank Deford