Not everyone is happy about Caitlyn Jenner getting the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs this year.
After it was announced in June that the 65-year-old Olympian was chosen to receive the big honor after coming out as a transgender woman
, some backlash ensued
, and now ESPN producers are explaining their controversial decision in a new interview.
"I think Caitlyn's decision to publicly come out as a transgender woman and live as Caitlyn Jenner displayed enormous courage and self-acceptance," Maura Mandt, ESPYs co-executive producer, tells Sports Illustrated
. "Bruce Jenner could have easily gone off into the sunset as this American hero and never have dealt with this publicly. Doing so took enormous courage. He was one of the greatest athletes of our time."
"That is what the Arthur Ashe Courage Award is about, somebody from the athletic community who has done something that transcends sport," she further defends the decision. "One of the biggest platforms the Arthur Ashe Foundation has is educational, and I think in this choice we have the opportunity to educate people about this issue and hopefully change and possibly save some lives. I think that is why it was the right choice."
Mandt stresses that the process of Caitlyn being selected was the same as it had been for previous years. The process includes meeting with the potential recipient, as well as consulting with people within the community of the winner and people from the Ashe Foundation. Arthur Ashe was a professional tennis player -- and the only black man ever to win the singles title at Wimbledon -- who founded both the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS and the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health before dying in 1993 of AIDS-related pneumonia.
Mandt responded to criticism that Caitlyn getting the award is a publicity stunt to attract more viewers.
"It is very rare you get to tell a story that hopefully affects people and moves people and has meaning and makes a difference," she says. "At the same time if it attracts people from seeing it? We are not going to run away from that. Every person who has a cause needs a platform."
Mandt also admits that sports broadcaster Bob Costas' comments during his June appearance on The Dan Patrick Show hurt actually her the most. Costas criticized ESPN's decision, calling the move a "tabloid play." "In the broad world of sports, I’m pretty sure they could’ve found someone -- and this is not anything against Caitlyn Jenner -- who was much closer to actively involved in sports, who would’ve been deserving of what that award represents," he said.
Mandt says Costas' comments disappointed her "so greatly."
"This whole story is all about that we get to choose who we are, what we say. That was what Arthur Ashe was about," Mandt explains. "So for Bob Costas who is greatly respected to make that statement with authority about this being a crass publicity play, people take that with authority, and that is dangerous. ... This is a subject matter where there are kids in the middle of the country killing themselves [over gender identity questions] and the whole courage of Caitlyn coming out is we all know now someone who is transgender. I would have expected Bob to not go to that place."
Meanwhile, Caitlyn is seemingly taking the backlash in stride.
"What the hell am I going to wear?" she joked in June when the story broke.
The ESPYs, hosted by Joel McHale, airs Wednesday, July 15, on ABC.