Magic Johnson and AIDS

Joan Beck

November 09, 1992|By Joan Beck

HE'S called "Magic" Johnson for good reason.

He has led a charmed life as a professional athlete, earned millions of dollars, been idolized by sports fans and sportswriters as have few other superstars.

Now, the sportswriters are recycling their tributes once again -- reruns of the gushers of praise that marked his first headlined retirement a year ago, his Most Valuable Player award in the All-Star game, his romp to the Olympic gold medal with the American "Dream Team" and now his second retirement.

He also walks away with the $14.6 million extension on his contract for the 1994-1995 season that he signed two days after announcing his comeback on Sept. 29. That's in addition to the $5 million still due him for the 1992-1993 and 1993-94 seasons he will not play.

Any other player might have raised eyebrows for getting the Los Angeles Lakers to ante up that extra $14.6 million, then backing out a month later, not because of a change in his health but because he was uncomfortable about concerns raised by a few players on competing teams.

But not Magic Johnson. No one is even suggesting he's apparently scored a financial slam-dunk on the Lakers for un-retiring just long enough to get that extra $14.6 million before quitting again.

And almost no one is even mentioning that for all his longtime devotion to the Lakers, the timing of his re-retirement and the huge financial obligations the Lakers now have to him may make it hard for the team to hire star-quality replacements under NBA rules.

Instead, the barbs are all directed at the players who dared to express privately -- or increasingly in public -- concerns about playing a hard-driving sport involving bodily contact with a person infected with HIV. Such fears might lead a player to back off a little at crucial points in a tough game, they suggested.

The point they are making was reinforced recently when a photo taken during an exhibition game in which Johnson played shows him sitting on the bench while a bleeding cut on his arm is being cleaned with a swab. The trainer tending to the superstar is not wearing protective gloves. Players point out that bloody scrapes and cuts are common during games.

It is theoretically possible for the blood of an HIV-positive player to infect a teammate or opponent who also has an open cut or abrasion. But the danger is "infinitesimal" or "almost nil" in the words of physicians. They do not say it is impossible. That is the difference that fuels the concerns about playing with or against Magic Johnson.

There is no known case of HIV being transmitted during a basketball game or in any other sport. But at least 32 health care workers -- and probably 69 more -- have become infected with HIV on the job, most of them by sticks with needles or nicks with scalpels used on HIV patients, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Four are reported to have gotten HIV just by touching infected blood or tissue.

What also influenced Johnson's decision to re-retire and collect his millions was speculation about how he acquired HIV infection, particularly that he might have been involved in a bisexual encounter. Johnson has resented having to insist he is heterosexual.

But one reason interest persists in how Johnson became infected with HIV is that it is unusual -- although quite possible -- for a man to acquire the virus from having sex with a woman. Of the 242,146 cases of full-blown AIDS reported to the CDC since the epidemic began, only 5,983 involved female-to-male transmission. No one knows how many of the estimated million cases of HIV infection that have not yet progressed to AIDS itself are the result of heterosexual encounters.

In his re-retirement announcement, Johnson said, "Although my family has given me their support to return to the Lakers, I feel that it is more important to spend my time with them as well as continuing with HIV and AIDS education projects than in the competitive and time-consuming world of the NBA."

It's not fair, of course, to hope that Johnson will now turn his talents, energies and personal magic to doing for AIDS efforts what he has done for professional basketball -- just because he has HIV. Certainly he is entitled to live the rest of his life as he chooses.

Many people thought that Magic Johnson's most important contribution would be to show the world that HIV infection does not necessarily bar a world-class athlete from successful competition -- and by implication, others with HIV from continuing their occupations and interests. Others hoped the public example of the NBA's acceptance of an infected player would help reduce unfounded fears about people with AIDS and HIV.

Now that message has been garbled and diluted.

Johnson did allow his name to be put on a small, straightforward book for young people about AIDS.

But his contribution to the National Commission on AIDS, to which President Bush appointed him, was a disappointment. He attended only one or two meetings, then resigned with an angry, politicized blast against the president for not having done more about AIDS.

In many ways, Magic Johnson has come to symbolize the nation's ambivalence about AIDS. Many of us have difficulty separating our caring about those who are infected from our fears about the spreading epidemic. We resent the politicizing of a medical problem and making a circus of a celebrity. We want a cure and a vaccine as soon as possible, but wish the amount of national attention and money were also focused on other serious health concerns that affect so many more people. And without ambivalence, we wish Magic Johnson well.

Joan Beck is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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