With all due respect to the courage it must have taken for Bruce Jenner to turn himself into Caitlyn Jenner, ESPN fumbled this one.
On Monday, the sports network announced that it had selected Jenner to receive the ESPY Arthur Ashe award for courage. Given the enormous — and largely self-generated — publicity spawned by the transformation of Bruce to Caitlyn, it was a no-brainer for the sports network. When it comes to ratings, it’s hard to beat a man who was an Olympic champion who then went on to be a star on a trashy television show and then shared his private agony over gender identification on national television and the cover of Vanity Fair magazine.
Lauren Hill never had a chance. Not at life and not at this award.
All she ever did was battle cancer with an amazing grace and astounding spirit. And an ever-present smile.
Diagnosed with diffused intrinsic pentene gleoma ( DIPG) after doctors discovered an inoperable brain tumor, Hill was told by doctors she wouldn’t live past last December. But she played her senior season at Lawrenceburg High School in Indiana while undergoing chemotherapy. Then she went to Mount St. Joseph University (near Cincinnati) with the goal of playing in at least one college game before dying.
In November she suited up with her Lions teammates, all of them wearing gray uniforms made especially for that first game of the season. Gray is the color of brain cancer awareness. Inspired by her story, a crowd of 10,000 spectators turned out for the game at Hiram College, in a gym that seldom hosts more than 100.
When the game began, a teammate passed the ball to Hill, who made a layup that went into the record books as the first field goal of the 2014-15 college basketball season. Because the illness had weakened the right side of her body, she made it left-handed. Near the end of the game she scored another field goal, this time with her weakened right hand. It was a game in which cheers competed with tears. Both of which were runners-up to Hill’s ever-present smile.
Hill died this April at the age of 19, but not before she had achieved her goal of playing in a college basketball game. Not before she had spent her final months speaking for kids who are too young to explain their symptoms to their doctors and raising awareness about the lack of research for a cancer with a zero percent survival rate and few new treatment options. Not before she had helped raise $1.5 million to help other children with cancer.
In explaining its decision to give the Arthur Ashe Award to Jenner, ESPN said it was “to help move forward a constructive dialogue about progress and acceptance.” And that’s a good thing; it will serve as inspiration for many.
But Lauren Hill’s story should provide inspiration for all of us.
When the ESPY decision was announced this week, Caitlyn Jenner tweeted, “What the hell am I going to wear (for the awards telecast)?”
On the biggest night of her short, brave life, Lauren Hill wore gray.
And an ever-present smile.