Like the proverbial macular-degenerative squirrel, NBC sportscaster Bob Costas occasionally stumbles into a bit of sense — most recently on Monday’s The Dan Patrick Show, when, during the course of an eleven-minute interview, Costas (beginning eight minutes in) offered a sharp word about ESPN’s decision to give this year’s Arthur Ashe Courage Award to Bruce “Caitlyn” Jenner:
It strikes me that awarding the Arthur Ashe award to Caitlyn Jenner is just a crass exploitation play. It’s a tabloid play. In the broad world of sports, I’m pretty sure they could have found — and this is not anything against Caitlyn Jenner — I’m pretty sure they could have found someone who was much closer to actively involved in sports, who would have been deserving of what that award represents.
That’s not to say that it doesn’t take some measure of personal courage to do what Caitlyn Jenner has done, but I think that every year we look across the landscape of sports, and we find prominent people and kids in high-school and amateur athletes who I think more closely fit the description of what they’re looking for or should be looking for there. And I think this is a play to pump up audience the way lots of things are put on television, to attract eyeballs, not because of the validity, but because of whatever the kind of gawker factor is.
It’s worth noting, as does Allahpundit at HotAir, that those comments — which, keep in mind, were not at all about Jenner — were preceded by 30 seconds of apology, beginning with an outright plea to listeners: “I’m hoping not to be misunderstood.”
Bruce Jenner, who I did not know well, I always had a cordial and pleasant relationship with. I wish Caitlyn Jenner well, and anyone — even if most of us do not fully understand it — anyone seeking to find the identity they’re comfortable with and to live the happiest possible life without intentionally hurting anyone else — I think we’re moving toward a more tolerant society, and that’s all for the good, and I wish Caitlyn all the happiness in the world and all the peace of mind in the world.
That praise was not sufficient for sports site Deadspin, which rebuked Costas on the grounds that “one of the most famous athletes of the 20th century publicly transitioning is a big and important sports story, full stop.”
Maybe so. But being a “big story” and a story of courage are hardly synonymous. As my colleague David French observed, there were plenty of candidates well suited to this year’s award. Why choose Jenner over Noah Galloway or Lauren Hill?
To that criticism Matt Yoder, writing at AwfulAnnouncing.com, retorts: “Who gets to be the arbiter of who is more or less courageous than someone else? Who can raise their hand to tell us how we should quantify courage or who is more deserving of someone else in that department?”
Unintentionally, Yoder has put his finger on the problem not with Costas’s comment, but with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award: What constitutes courage in the “broad world of sports”?
What constitutes courage in the “broad world of sports”?
Like Nobel Peace Prize laureates, the winners of the Arthur Ashe trophy are a mixed bag: The 1996 prize went to Loretta Claiborne, a gold-medal-winning Special Olympics athlete who has completed 26 marathons; the 2005 award was shared by Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, a disabled Ghanaian triathlete who, in 2001, bicycled 400 miles across his native country to highlight the plight of Ghana’s disabled, and Jim MacLaren, who during the 1993 Orange County Triathlon was struck by a van and rendered quadriplegic — this after having lost his left leg below the knee eight years earlier; and the 2007 award went to Trevor Ringland and David Cullen for their work, through PeacePlayers International, using basketball to help resolve sectarian conflicts in Northern Ireland.
But ESPN has also catered to progressive political causes: Last year’s award went to openly gay NFL player Michael Sam, a brief cause célèbre on the left.
How does ESPN gather under a single banner Jim MacLaren, disabled twice in horrific accidents, but who worked as a motivational speaker until his death in 2010, and Michael Sam, whose coming out led to a spot on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars? Surely one factor is that we have defined courage down so that it is little more than embracing one’s “authentic self.” If your authentic self leads you to help disabled people in third-world Africa, that’s courageous; and if your authentic self leads you to plastic surgery to alter your gender identity, that’s courageous, too.
The 20th-century German philosopher Josef Pieper recognized that this was a perversion of courage, because “fortitude [i.e., courage] points to something prior”: “The brave man must first know what the good is,” wrote Pieper in The Four Cardinal Virtues, “and he must be brave for the sake of the good.”
The consequences of dispensing with the good — dispensing, that is, with a foundation for determining what is or is not courageous — are obvious: Nazi soldiers and the 9/11 terrorists are courageous.
Progressivism rejects the limiting principles that enable us to make distinctions: Everything is “courageous,” so nothing is.
Americans are blessed to retain the residual prejudices (in the best sense of that word) that allow us to make those differentiations without having to fall back on argument or metaphysics. We recognize that Mohammad Atta was cowardly, not courageous. But his cowardice is not self-evident (as is clear from the crowds that cheered his deeds); our ability to recognize it is the product of slow, hard-earned moral maturation.
Progressivism, meanwhile — that moral attitude to which Matt Yoder is merely giving voice — rejects the limiting principles that enable us to make those distinctions. It pushes back against the consensus refined over centuries of communal living, in favor of “updated,” increasingly elastic definitions that bolster abstract, fluid notions of justice. The result, of course, is that the words end up meaning nothing at all. Everything is “courageous,” so nothing is.
We can be sure that Bob Costas was not thinking in these terms. He has made clear that he is happily aboard the progressive train. But perhaps he has begun to realize that this particular locomotive cannot be slowed down.