Arthur Ashe story transcends tragedy

MIKE LITTWIN

April 09, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

As far as we know, Arthur Ashe didn't sleep with thousands of women.

He didn't use drugs with needles.

He isn't gay.

And yet he has AIDS.

That's the first thing to know about this story. Arthur Ashe might as well be Kimberly Bergalis. He is a victim of caprice. He apparently got a bad blood transfusion, and the bad blood gave him HIV, and the HIV gave him AIDS.

So, we don't get a morality play this time. No one gets to point fingers. Arthur Ashe was unlucky, and because he was unlucky, he has contracted a fatal disease.

But does it really matter how he got AIDS? Maybe it doesn't matter how anyone gets it. Maybe finger-pointing is a bad idea. Maybe blaming the victim is a mean-spirited exercise in futility. Do we have to see heroes fall to learn that?

What is certain is that another hero has been hit. And that the shock -- if not the sadness -- is a little less pointed. That's another part of the story. There will be other heroes to fall. Until there is a cure for the disease, there will always be others. Among the thousands of nameless, faceless victims, there will inevitably be those who are rich and famous.

When Magic Johnson made his announcement, we noted how he gave a dignified face to what many see as a shameful disease. Arthur Ashe casts further light onto the shadow. But, unlike Johnson, Ashe didn't smile when he made his announcement. He was angry and hurt. Not because he'd learned he had AIDS -- he'd known since 1988 -- but because he was required to tell the world on terms that were not his own. That's another part of the story.

This is a tragedy for Ashe and for his family. Somebody, in his words, ratted on him, calling a newspaper that seemed ready to run with the story. Ashe decided to tell it first, and so his life, and the life of his wife and child, will never be the same.

Is that right or just?

That's a hard question. What should a newspaper do? Should it keep the news under wrap? Should a newspaper decide what the reader should or shouldn't know? We reported when he had open-heart surgery. No one would question a story saying Ashe had cancer. Where do you draw the line?

Ashe says that he isn't running for office and that he has no stockholders to report to, so why shouldn't he be able to maintain his privacy? I guess the answer lies in the fact that this is a Page 1 story across America.

The disease is bigger than he is -- it's bigger than any one person. It may not be right or just, but when a public figure contracts AIDS, it is news.

But the real story is, of course, Arthur Ashe himself. If there is much work left for Ashe to do, especially in the wake of his announcement, there are certain things about the man that must be said now.

He is a legitimate hero. He is the kind of person you'd want your son or daughter to grow up to be. A victim of racism as a youngster -- he wasn't allowed to play on certain public tennis courts in Richmond, Va. -- Ashe went on to become a great champion. That's an old story and yet a wonderful story. But it isn't what makes Ashe special.

Ashe is an activist. He has strongly held beliefs, which he works to put into action. And he does it without shouting and without pointing at himself. He has never been a celebrity spokesman for a cause. He has been a spokesman for a cause while happening to be a celebrity.

He has always done the hard work, the hard research, the hard lobbying. He was a prime mover in having South Africa dropped as a Davis Cup contestant because of apartheid. Sports boycotts of South Africa preceded international sanctions, which were key to the changes that are taking place today.

When Proposition 48 -- requiring athletes to score a minimum of 700 on their Scholastic Aptitude Tests to be eligible to play as college freshmen -- was being suggested, Ashe positioned himself in the middle of the controversy. He did not bow to the orthodoxy of those who opposed the rule, saying it was racist. Ashe maintained that we must ask more of our young people -- not less. And that to ask less meant that we should accept less.

Whether you agree with Ashe, you always know he has thoroughly thought out his position. He will add creativity and thoughtfulness to the AIDS discussion. I don't like it when people say there's a bright side to someone else's tragedy. It's not a bright side to Ashe's disease that he will help others. But it is there, and it's a responsibility he will accept.

Magic Johnson has said he hopes to work in concert with Ashe in educating people about the disease. What's more important is that others, who don't have AIDS, will be moved by people like Ashe to face up to the disease and its victims.

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