You don't silence Arthur Ashe all that easily. Racism has tried his soul, disease has attacked his heart, and now another malady, AIDS, is assailing his body—and his dignity. But Ashe, 48, the most prominent black tennis player in history and one of the most respected athletes of our time, perseveres when battling ills, whether medical or societal.
And last week a new battle was joined when Ashe, fearing that his condition would be revealed by USA Today, reluctantly announced that he suffers from AIDS. After a televised press conference and three days of interviews, he sat in his Manhattan apartment Saturday, tired but not feeling at all sick, yet entertaining no illusions about his future. As for the question of why he has been beset by so much travail, Ashe has concluded, after much thought and study, that God heard he was a pretty good juggler, and He wants to see some juggling. "It's one of the great moral questions," said Ashe. "Why do bad things happen to good people? Because it's a matter of enduring them."
Ashe knows that the disclosure that he has AIDS will require him to confront a new kind of discrimination, just as the discovery 3� years ago that he had the disease required that he confront a new kind of medical crisis. He thumbs daily through such writings as Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor, which explores society's misperceptions about diseases and the people who contract them. He turns to Albert Einstein, who, when asked what he considered to be the most important question in the world, replied. "Is the universe a friendly place?"
Ashe thinks about that a lot. Will the world be a friendly place when he steps out of his apartment building and people wonder if he's headed to New York Hospital for his monthly blood test to check the status of a disease that is most frequently transmitted by homosexuals and intravenous-drug users? Will it be a friendly place for his five-year-old daughter, Camera, a radiant child who attends an elite private school? Will it be a beautiful place for him and his erudite wife, Jeanne, the next time they dine out? Ashe is not at all certain.
"I have not yet walked into a restaurant where I might feel that they really don't want me in there," he says, "where the waiter will take precautions or where someone in the kitchen will make sure to wash my plate with a little more hot water than everyone else's."
Because of such anxieties, Ashe had chosen to keep his condition a secret from all but a few close friends. However, after USA Today had informed Ashe that it had received a tip about his condition and was considering publishing a story about it, he held his press conference on April 8 in New York City and acknowledged having the illness. Ashe stated he was "100 percent sure" that he had become infected with HIV through a blood transfusion after one of his two heart bypass operations, in 1979 or, more likely, '83. He had known of his condition since '88, when his right hand suddenly became numb and he underwent brain surgery to determine the cause. Doctors found an abscess on his brain caused by toxoplasmosis, an infection that, when found in the brain, frequently indicates the presence of HIV.
In Ashe, AIDS has gained a second well-known spokesman, but one of a different sort than the effervescent Magic Johnson, who disclosed live months ago that he had contracted HIV through sexual activity. The only black man ever to have won the U.S. Open (1968) or Wimbledon ('75), Ashe is a man of surpassing but understated eloquence. Although outraged by the invasion of his privacy, he will nonetheless take up the AIDS cause.
Ashe says his first order of business will be to "destigmatize" the disease that he terms the modern-day equivalent of leprosy. In particular, he'll try to dispel the public hysteria surrounding AIDS, a hysteria that results in discrimination that is sometimes unwitting and at other times intentional and vicious. Because of the social circles he moves in, Ashe has a rare chance to demystify AIDS in places like country clubs, boardrooms, private schools and the White House.
For Ashe, the most difficult aspect of dealing with AIDS is the misconception that it can be transmitted through everyday contact. "You can't get it from being kissed, or sneezed on, or coughed on, or hugged, from a handshake, or using the same fork, or using the same glass," Ashe says. Both Jeanne and Camera have been tested for HIV. and neither has it.
"Whether his condition should become known was discussed with him with some frequency, as to what the advantages and disadvantages were of getting it out," says Michael Giordano, a physician at New York Hospital who has treated Ashe. Arthur discussed going public most often with Jeanne. He says that they had decided he would do so "when I was convinced I didn't have too much time left, but I still functioned well enough to do a lot of good."