From "Days of Grace: A Memoir" by Arthur Ashe and Arnold Rampersad. Copyright 1993 by Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe and Arnold Rampersad. Reprinted with permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
I do not think that every black athlete or entertainer has an obligation to thrust himself or herself into positions of leadership. However, our situation is increasingly desperate, and I admire those athletes and entertainers who consciously try to give something back to the people, if only by exemplary behavior. I admire former stars such as Julius Erving in basketball, or Lynn Swann in football, for what they have made of themselves. I am less happy with the demureness of someone like Michael Jordan, who is as popular as he is rich. While I would defend Jordan's right to stay out of politics in general, I think that he made a mistake in declining to give any open support to Harvey Gantt, the respected black politician who ran for the U.S. Senate in 1990 from Jordan's home state of North Carolina. For me, the main point is not that Gantt and Jordan are both black; rather, it is that Gantt's opponent, Jesse Helms, has a long history of supporting segregation, and the contest was close. For blacks across America, that Senate contest was the most important in decades. Instead, Jordan stuck to his apolitical position. "I really don't know Gantt," he said, in response to criticism of his silence. "Well, Michael," I would have told him, "pick up the telephone and call him!" A few appearances with Gantt might well have made the difference. Instead, Helms returned to the Senate.
In general, the sex life of an individual should be nobody's business but his or her own. Nevertheless, the sexual behavior of a famous athlete, when widely publicized, may have a powerful and deleterious impact on young people in particular. Add the factors of AIDS and rampant unwanted teenage pregnancy into the equation and the sex life of individual star athletes may become a matter of public concern.
Sexual promiscuity has often been a feature of the behavior of athletes, or at least of male athletes. In recent times, in keeping with our collapse of standards, or our increasing commitment to candor, we have had a better understanding of what constitutes promiscuity for some athletes. The former basketball player Wilt Chamberlain, in his autobiography, has numbered his sexual "conquests" at about 20,000 women. (I don't believe him about the number.) By comparison, Earvin "Magic" Johnson has been almost monkish, with a mere 2,500 partners, according to one estimate. Many women wanted him, he once explained with his beautiful smile, and he tried to "accommodate" as many of them as he could. However, Johnson may have made up for his lack of numbers, compared to Chamberlain, with revelations of kinkiness. According to him, he has responded to the desire of various women by having sex in an elevator, sex on a desk in a business office (while a board meeting was going on next door), sex with six women in one night.
As much as I like Wilt and Magic, I must say I did not enjoy reading these accounts. I must also admit candidly that part of my reaction to Wilt's and Magic's revelations was a certain amount of racial embarrassment, an affliction to which I hope never to become immune. African Americans have spent decades denying that we are sexual primitives by nature, as racists have argued since the days of slavery. Then two college-trained black men of international fame and immense personal wealth do their best to reinforce the stereotype. And Chamberlain and Johnson merely bolstered the substance of an article in Esquire magazine about promiscuity among players in the National Basketball Association, which is predominantly black. Magic even repeated "an old joke in the NBA" in his book. "Question: What's the hardest thing about going on the road? Answer: Trying not to smile when you kiss your wife goodbye."
Along with just about everyone else, I too am fond of Magic as a person, beyond his commanding skills as a basketball player. I was happy for all his successes, from his victories as a college player to his Olympic Games triumph in Barcelona. I was in favor of his return to professional basketball after his retirement following his announcement that he was HIV positive. I was disappointed by the reaction of those other players, notably Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz, who apparently helped to drive him back into retirement by expressing fears about possible contamination by him. What puzzled me especially, on this score, was a question I did not see raised anywhere. If Malone and others were so fearful of being contaminated by Magic, why were they not insisting on mandatory testing of all athletes? After all, Johnson wrote candidly of sharing the bodies of certain women with other players. Who else is infected in the NBA?
However, Magic may have missed one opportunity in his commendable campaign to fight AIDS. Although he doubtless was caught up in the business of promoting his book (an obligation he certainly owes to his publishers), he probably went too far as a salesman. Unconsciously, no doubt, promotion of the book took momentary precedence over his sense of the dangers of promiscuity.