(Later he will say, "After the riots—I should say the revolt—in L.A. this spring, I saw Crips and Bloods interviewed on CNN, and someone called in and asked what they thought of the man, Reginald Denny, who was dragged out of his truck and beaten, and they didn't think anything at all of it. I kept saying to my wife, 'That's not us. That's not us.' What happened to the collective shame the black community used to experience? 'Yes, white society did you wrong,' my uncles would say. 'But you do not, ever, lower yourself to their level.' ")
Ashe tells the symposium that the cause is not lost, and he sketches the approaches taken by the counseling and mentoring programs he has started on the roughest playgrounds of Newark and in Richmond's schools. He says his sense of desperation is so great that he is willing to experiment with all sorts of educational reforms, which leads him to his position on the NCAA's three-year-old requirement that freshmen have SAT scores of at least 700 to receive athletic scholarships.
"What wasn't discussed when this was adopted, except in the cloakrooms, was how that number was decided," says Ashe. "They had to set a level that, quote, even black athletes could pass, unquote. That stung me. That was one of the most disturbing things I had heard in my life. I know black kids are just as bright as anyone else, and if you expect more, you'll get it. And 700 was laughable when you get 400 for signing your name, and when you consider the international competition. Can you imagine the Japanese saying 700 is good enough? Black educators were incensed at the proposal. I was incensed that they were incensed, because they said the requirement was going to cut black athletic opportunity. They should have complained that the number wasn't higher."
The shape of his speech, his catalytic work, suddenly becomes clear. He is rebuking and summoning. He is being true to his father and to Dr. Johnson. He asserts that sports are critical to saving "the most vulnerable group in American life, 13-year-old black boys. With sports they are part of a team, they connect effort and reward, they accept fair play, they deal with losing. Too many of them associate losing with failure and embarrassment, and embarrassment in front of their peers is what leads young African-American men to get out their knives."
"There's never any unanimity in those meetings," says Ashe with no apparent dismay. He is back in his study, fresh from having seen Malcolm X.
"Malcolm was, to me, a little frightening before he went to Mecca, even though you knew he meant to add backbone and a rationale for collective self-defense," says Ashe. "I gave no thought in those days to becoming a Muslim. I was never recruited. But I saw how it galvanized others. I don't think Cassius Clay would have refused induction into the Army in 1967. But Muhammad Ali did. I wonder what Malcolm would think today? I never met him or Dr. King. I got a letter from King once. I remember that my friends and I figured, sooner or later, they'd be assassinated: JFK, Malcolm, Martin, Bobby." And Arthur, mild and brave.
"I'm getting my life in order, so if something should happen, now or five years from now, it won't cause disruption," he says. "I'm always juggling time spent on family, work and pro bono activities. I'm always torn. Just one more minute with my child. But the AIDS issue shoved itself to the top of the list, and it's not unrelated to what I was concerned with before. The pathologies of the inner city also generate AIDS cases."
Ashe looks hale, eats like a horse, climbs stairs two steps at a time and has a steady blood count. Yet only he could have written this paragraph, which appeared in The Washington Post after he suffered a mild heart attack following his arrest in September during a protest in Washington, D.C.: "Did my participation in a demonstration for Haitian political refugees...precipitate this MI [myocardial infarction], and was this AIDS-related? The answer to both is no." Even so, his doctors told him to knock off the civil disobedience.
"He's all ho-hum acceptance and grace," says 1978 U.S. Open finalist Pam Shriver, who works with Ashe on ABC tennis telecasts. "You just hope, when it's your turn to face it, you can do half as well." The eternal example.
Ashe has known he had AIDS since 1988, when doctors found an abscess on his brain caused by toxoplasmosis, an infection that is often a marker for AIDS. He and his wife, Jeanne, a fine photographer, decided not to go public with his illness for the sake of their daughter, Camera, who was two at the time. Ashe told a few close friends, who kept quiet. However, after USA Today informed Ashe this spring that it was pursuing the story, he felt that to maintain his privacy, he would have to lie about his health.