It took three tests to convince Magic Johnson he had HIV.
He assumed the results of the first test, administered by an insurance company as part of a routine physical on behalf of the Los Angeles Lakers, were wrong. The second one, too. After a third doctor told him he was HIV-positive, he realized it was true. Twenty years ago this week, one of the greatest players basketball players ever retired from the NBA at age 32.
“To me, AIDS was someone else's disease,” he wrote in Sports Illustrated the week after the press conference that changed the conversation about AIDS in America forever. “It was a disease for gays and drug users. Not for someone like me.”
That’s exactly why Johnson’s announcement and retirement from the NBA changed the world. HIV was for people like him—people who had casual, unprotected sex with hundreds or thousands of women. HIV couldn’t just be the “gay men’s disease” anymore, because Johnson was the picture of hetero masculinity. Twenty years later, he remains the face—the grinning, healthy face—of HIV.
Like it or not, athletes are role models for millions of people, so they might as well use their public platforms for good. With that in mind, here are three more issues that are crying out for a star athlete to take a public, personal stand.
When Johnson announced his diagnosis, he went to great lengths to emphasize that he contracted the virus through heterosexual sex. And 20 years later, the professional sports world maintains the same awkward relationship with homosexuality. There are undoubtedly dozens of gay athletes in pro locker rooms—Charles Barkley says every NBA player has shared a locker room with them without incident—yet not a single one has publicly come out of the closet. Meanwhile, players like Kobe Bryant continue to use anti-gay slurs on the court.
If one prominent athlete in any major sport came out of the closet, kids with his poster on the wall would see that being gay is normal and doesn’t stop people from achieving success in even the most stereotypically masculine worlds. To his credit, New Orleans Saints linebacker Scott Fujita has been an outspoken advocate of gay marriage, but he’s not gay himself. It’s time for a gay athlete to become a leader in fighting homophobia.
Athletes are uniquely situated to combat racism. Even the most vociferous racists generally don’t decline to support their hometown teams because they employ black or Latino players. It’s all too easy for racist sports fans to explain their rooting for black athletes with stereotypes about black players’ supposed genetic advantages, which is why we need an athlete to devote himself off the field to combating racism.
Imagine the effect a black athlete could have on the kids who revere his performance by discussing how discrimination and name-calling has influenced his own life. That might prompt some people’s first realizations about why racism is so destructive to society and how rooting for black players doesn’t make someone color-blind.
The Wealth Gap
No athletes in the four major team sports are part of the 99 percent; they all make at least $375,000 a year. Yet the vast majority of them grew up poor or middle-class, so they’re not all that far removed from the problems plaguing millions of Americans. And as basketball players go through their own labor crisis in which their boss is telling them they’re too dumb to understand financial negotiations, they’re in a prime position to advocate for financially struggling Americans. One big-name pro could have a huge impact in explaining why aggressive foreclosures, predatory bank policies, and profit-grubbing Wall Streeters affect everyone. Let’s get a star athlete to join the actors, musicians, and writers who have appeared at Occupy Wall Street and tell all his fans what he plans to do to end the tremendous wealth disparities in America.
None of these big-picture problems will be solved by a single pro athlete. But just as Johnson became the face of the nation’s fight against HIV, a sports star willing to use his personal story to publicly fight for what is right would be a major boon to any of these causes. Let’s hope one has the courage Johnson has displayed every day for the past 20 years.