Holding Out for a Hero

The word hero, in all of its various forms, is thrown around quite often in sports. Professional athletes are placed on a pedestal, expected to walk the straight and narrow and act as role models for the youth of the world. In tennis, the word hero is often associated with the word gladiator. Matches are played out one-on-one in an enclosed arena. When players come through long and arduous matches, they are hailed as warriors and fighters. The WTA’s previous global ad campaign, entitled “Looking for a Hero?”, was one of its most successful.

An athlete isn’t a hero because he uses physical strength and endurance to win. That’s his job. An athlete isn’t a hero because she goes out and wins multiple championships. That’s her goal. Heroism isn’t playing through an injury and coming out with a victory, and heroism isn’t rolling through the field to win a grand slam.

Despite all that, the word hero has not lost its luster in sports.

The ESPYs, ESPN’s annual fan-driven award show to celebrate athletic achievement in the past calendar year, takes itself far more seriously than it should. Ironically, it is the only awards show in the history of awards shows that doesn’t actually signify achievement in anything. Actors and directors measure their careers based on Oscars and Golden Globes, while musicians covet Grammys. But athletes? Each individual sport has its championships and each individual organization has its awards, medals and accolades. From the outside, the ESPYs seem like a colossal waste of time; in fact, they might even represent everything that’s wrong with professional sports today: over-the-top pomp and circumstance, glossy hero-worship, excessive media hype and dollar signs.

However, for approximately 20 minutes each year, the ESPYs do give us one thing: the chance to be inspired by a true hero. The Arthur Ashe Award for Courage is one of the only awards of the night that is not decided by fan voting; it is completely independent of the popularity contest and media circus. The award is presented to someone who “reflects the spirit of Arthur Ashe, possessing strength in the face of adversity, courage in the face of peril and the willingness to stand up for their beliefs no matter what the cost.” While a sports-themed award, the recipient does not have to be an athlete or even a sports figure; nonetheless, its honorees have given us some of the most memorable moments in sports history. In the first year of the ESPYs, Jimmy V told us, “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.” Last year, we backed Pat and she told us to “keep on keeping on.”

Last night, Robin Roberts received the 20th Arthur Ashe Award for Courage in the history of the ESPYs. Roberts, who has ties to the tennis family, is currently an anchor for ABC’s Good Morning America. A star athlete in her youth and record-holding basketball player at Southeastern Louisiana, she joined ESPN in 1990 and served with them for 15 years. Roberts was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007 and after surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, she returned back to the airwaves. Last year, however, she was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a disease that developed as a side effect from her treatment. Roberts needed, and received, a bone marrow transplant that saved her life.

Roberts, who was a friend of Ashe and was presented the award by LeBron James, received a standing ovation from those present in the arena. “It’s not so much what we’ve accomplished that we remember,” Roberts said in her acceptance speech, “it’s what we overcome.”

Despite all of its flaws, the ESPYs, and by extension sport as a whole, provides viewers with a stage to have these stories told. Athletes and sports figures can be heroes, but not solely for athletic achievement; Jimmy V, Pat, Robin and others are figures that transcend sports. They’ve taken up a platform and embraced that stage for the greater good. That is the thing, and not the number of championships, golds medals, or slam trophies present in their cabinets, that is the most inspiring.

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