When Magic Johnson announced that he was retiring from basketball because he had tested positive for the HIV virus, the nation fell into the kind of cultural coma that is all too common in recent history. The national television networks interrupted regularly scheduled programs for live coverage of Magic’s news conference and ran nightly retrospectives on his life and career. Reporters took to the streets to capture the shock and tears of his fans and admirers. Athletes testified to the many gifts Magic had “given the nation.” Los Angeles Lakers’ broadcaster Chick Hearn wondered whether “there will ever be a sadder story than this,” and if “basketball will ever recover.” Senators and congressmen pondered the meaning of it all, and President Bush interrupted a NATO conference in Rome to declare Magic a “national hero.”
Of course, there was one segment of the naHon that was both clear-eyed and clearheaded: the AIDS lobby. Magic Johnson was the high-profile figure it had long sought—the person whose affliction it could market to show that “anyone” could get AIDS—and Magic played right into its hands. At a national news conference, Magic pointed to his genitals and said, “Put your thinking caps on, and put your cap on down there.” This was the mature and courageous message that convinced President Bush that Magic was a “gentleman who has handled his problem in a wonderful manner.” Magic then joined AIDS activist Tom Stoddard to announce their concerted push for “explicit AIDS and sex education” on prime-time television and in elementary schools. Even the international community responded to Magic’s call. Just in case athletes are in need of some diversion from the competition they have trained and prepared a lifetime for, the international Olympics committee announced that all athletes, ostensibly male and female alike, will receive free condoms while in Barcelona.
The Magic Johnson story offers many lessons, but they are not the slogans being chanted by the national media and AIDS lobby. It is certainly true that anyone can get AIDS—anyone, that is, who behaves like Magic Johnson. Basketball player Mark Jackson said Magic “touched the whole world,” and we now know that Magic did indeed do a lot of touching. One of his close friends, Pamela McCee, admitted that it “didn’t surprise me that Magic had the disease. Knowing his flamboyant lifestyle, it was bound to happen sooner or later. Magic’s closest friends always knew him as a major player and womanizer. He has had one-night stands with what he calls ‘freaks’ across America.” Magic admitted this himself, saying “I did my best to accommodate as many women as I could.”
This story has also reinforced an old stereotype and a famous double standard. In a recent national talk show dealing with the lack of positive role models for minority youth, a number of black women correctly noted that Magic’s actions have done little to counter the image of black males as ignorant, irresponsible, and sexually insatiable, whatever their aptitude for bouncing a ball. This story also offended women athletes, because Magic will remain a million-dollar draw for commercial purposes. For all her whining, Martina Navratilova made a valid point: “If it had happened to a heterosexual woman who had been with 100 or 200 men, they’d call her a whore and a slut, and the corporations would drop her like a lead balloon. And she’d never get a job in her life.” Miss Navratilova, a lesbian, added: “I don’t have one damn endorsement outside of rackets and shoes.” Conclusion from Madison Avenue: better an immoral and sexually immature male than a lesbian who believes in monogamous relationships.
Most importantly, this incident should be used for opening debate on the role that sports and athletes play in American culture. Last year Bobby Bonilla was a good, slightly above average baseball player for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Last December he became the highest-paid athlete in the history of team sports, signing a $29 million contract to play five years for the New York Mets. And by all standards, Bonilla has nowhere near the potential or ability of a dozen other players currently in baseball. A Little League baseball manager in La Center, Washington, was last year charged transaction with second-degree assault with a, deadly weapon when he beat an umpire with a baseball bat during a postgame argument. The umpire had called the game because of darkness, meaning the score of the game reverted to the previous inning when the other team was winning. The manager was also a local school board member: One of the arguments used by Edwin Edwards in the recent gubernatorial election in Louisiana was that, if David Duke were elected, athletes would be scared away from attending Louisiana schools, costing the state millions in lost revenue. Sports tainting politics by tainting higher education—not a pretty scenario.
At Dixie College in St. George, Utah, crimes committed by school athletes have led to a heated debate in the local press. In the last seven years, there have been 27 charges of rape on campus—24 against athletes, 22 of them being against football players. Last year four Dixie football players were charged with varying crimes involving three teenaged girls, and a group of recruits committed a robbery while staying at Dixie. One football player had an extensive juvenile record, including the beating of a man who later died. The chief of campus security, Don Reid, told Sandi Graff of the local Daily Spectrum that he knew of players who had been recruited right out of prison. Football coach Greg Groshaw was fending off charges late last year that he had met with a probation officer and a judge in Arizona to get a prisoner an early release to play football at Dixie.
With sports permeating every pore of American culture, the public response to the Magic Johnson story should not be surprising. A German news agency compared Magic Johnson to the Persian Gulf War in the degree of national attention garnered in the American press—what a comfort to parents who lost a son or daughter in the Saudi desert. Alexander the Great slept with a copy of the Iliad under his pillow to get closer to the noble and heroic figures of antiquity, but our kids have a different class of heroes. The classics are out, along with virtue and exemplary deeds. For today’s would-be heroes, it’s grab your “cap” and carpe diem. Or, as stated in Magic’s old Nike commercials, “Just do it!”