Aids And Arthur Ashe

Posted: April 09, 1992

Arthur Ashe had a terrible choice to make: He could lie in an effort to protect his cherished privacy, or he could go public with what he knew would be sensational news.

Reluctantly, the ex-tennis great decided to go public.

In announcing on national TV yesterday that he has AIDS, Ashe, who has been out of the sports limelight for 13 years, made it clear he didn't like being forced into this predicament.

Speaking at an emotional news conference in New York, Ashe, 48, talked of being "ratted on," his privacy violated for no good reason.

"I am angry that I was put in the unenviable position of having to lie if I was to protect my privacy," he said. "I didn't commit any crime. I am not running for public office. I should reserve the right to keep something like that private."

Ashe, the first black man to win Britain's Wimbledon tennis tournament, said he was forced to make his condition public when a reporter for USA Today asked him Tuesday to confirm a report that he had AIDS.

Ashe also said that now that his secret is out, he will work on AIDs issues, possibly with Earvin "Magic" Johnson, the former Los Angeles Lakers star who said he is HIV positive, or President Bush's National Commission on AIDS.

Ashe, whose post-tennis activities have included writing and civil rights work, got a phone call from Bush wishing him well after his announcement.

Ashe said he had known since 1988 that he was infected with HIV, the AIDS virus, apparently resulting from a blood transfusion he received during a heart bypass operation in 1983. He says he is in good health, but has toxoplasmosis, a parasitic infection of the brain that is considered a sign of AIDS.


Ashe's situation raises a number of questions regarding AIDS in American society, including:

* What are the risks of an AIDS victim's family contracting the disease?

* Where is the line between an AIDS-infected celebrity's right to privacy and his responsibility to use his fame on behalf of others?

* Are blood transfusions safe?

* Does the media have an obligation to report that celebrities have AIDS?

* How is the demand by certain gay groups that homosexuals "come out" similar to Ashe's contention that his AIDS would be revealed with or without his cooperation?

Ashe hastened to assure the public that his wife, Jeanne, and their daughter, Camera, 5, who was born after the 1983 operation, are free of the AIDS virus.

"This is pretty good evidence of how difficult it is to transmit the virus," said Dr. Michael Spence, an AIDS expert at Hahnemann University Hospital. "I don't know their sexual practices, and it may be a combination of many things. But it can be a tough virus to get."

There have been no reported cases of an HIV-infected infant born to a non- infected mother, Spence said. That Ashe had HIV at the time of conception would not affect his child, as long as his wife remained uninfected.

"The place where HIV is in the sperm doesn't get incorporated in the development of the fetus," said Spence.

Immediately following Ashe's announcement, the phone began ringing "off the hook" at ActionAIDS, a Philadelphia AIDS service organization.


While most AIDS activists welcome increased public awareness of the disease, at least one viewed USA Today's attempt to divulge Ashe's illness as evidence of how "HIV-phobic" the media is.

"If he had even another sexually transmitted disease or cancer, it wouldn't be an issue," said Ennis Littrell, executive director of ActionAIDS. ''People have every right, for many reasons, to keep it private that they have AIDS. People who have children may decide this because we can't predict what burden those children bear when a parent's medical information becomes public."

Argument could be made that Ashe's announcement further educates the public that anyone may be vulnerable to AIDS. Some activists argue that AIDS should be printed in obituaries as a cause of death to help make readers aware of how prevalent this disease is within a community.

"An obituary normalizes AIDS," said Littrell. "But people's illnesses are not described for the public. It's none of the public's business. We must understand AIDS is a medical illness. It's more dreadful and the prognosis is not as bright as many illnesses, but it's a medical illness.

"When USA Today decides it's big news, it underscores how HIV-phobic we are."

One AIDS activist, Larry Kramer, author of "The Normal Heart," said Ashe's privacy rights were outweighed by his celebrity.

Kramer said Ashe could have saved lives if he had made the announcement when he first learned that he was infected.

"He has a moral responsibility as a public figure," Kramer said. "If he was John Doe, he has a right to privacy. If he's Arthur Ashe . . . he's asked to be public property."


Ashe said he is "100 percent sure" he contracted the deadly virus from blood transfusions, and "95 percent sure" it happened during his second heart operation in 1983.

"I was 18 months too soon for HIV testing of all blood supplies," he said.

HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is transmitted primarily through semen, sharing IV needles contaminated with HIV, and from a mother to her unborn child.

Becoming infected from a blood transfusion today is extremely rare.

Since March 1985, all blood used in transfusions has been screened for HIV and other diseases. But the test isn't fool-proof. A blood donor may have contracted HIV but not yet developed the antibodies detected in the screening test.

There was minimal concern about AIDS in 1983, physicians say. But in that year, several news stories were written suggesting a link between blood transfusions and a disease of the immune system striking mainly gay men.

"About that time, we started recognizing that that was happening," said Hahnemann's Spence. "Arthur Ashe probably was being cared for by an affluent physician, not one in the trenches. It probably didn't come to mind."

Ashe also had a quadruple bypass surgery in New York City in 1979, following a heart attack.

"Because the first AIDS cases were documented in 1981, it's natural to assume those people were infected in 1979," said Dr. Ian Frank, infectious disease specialist for the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center.

While some people today learn they're infected with HIV through a voluntary blood test, Ashe was blind-sided with the diagnosis.

One day in 1988, a morning he happened to be being interviewed by "CBS This Morning" in his Westchester County home outside New York City, Ashe's right hand would not move.

A CAT scan of his brain disclosed suspicious shadows and a biopsy revealed he had toxoplasmosis in his brain, one of a dozen infections classified as ''AIDS-defining" because almost all people who come down with these conditions have an HIV-weakened immune system.

Spence said Ashe's physicians undoubtedly were treating him with antibiotics to suppress the germ. Also, Ashe said he was taking AZT and was tolerating the drug well. It can cause anemia in some patients.

"AZT is used to keep HIV in check," said Spence. "You can take it in low doses for extremely long periods of time. I've had a patient on it for five years."


A USA Today editor said the newspaper was justified in pursuing a tip that Ashe has AIDS because he is a public figure.

"I don't think there was any question," said Gene Policinski, managing editor for sports. "For any news organization when any public figure becomes ill . . . there's no question that it's news."

"We were treating AIDS as any other illness," he said.

Ashe said at his news conference that he was not angry at USA Today. ''Someone just called and ratted on me and they felt journalistically they had to follow it up," Ashe said.

The newspaper's follow-up on a tip that Ashe had AIDS "put me in the unenviable position to have to lie to maintain my privacy," he said.

"It is only that I fall under the dubious umbrella of public figure," he said.

Policinski said that Ashe is "a public figure far beyond the world of tennis."

The editor also said the newspaper's reporters acted appropriately in pursuing the story. "We did not have reporters dogging his every step or invading his privacy. We learned of this from a source and pursued the story."

Policinski said the newspaper interviewed Ashe Tuesday in following up the tip it had received from an unidentified source.

"I asked him if he had AIDS or was HIV positive. His first words were 'Could be,' " but Policinski said Ashe would not confirm or deny it.

He said Ashe asked if he could have 36 hours to make some calls and get a statement together, but Policinski said the newspaper did not get involved in such agreements, "felt the information was credible . . . and would continue to report the story."

However, the newspaper's information was from background sources and was not confirmed on the record. USA Today has a policy against publishing stories based on unidentified sources, he said.

"My decision . . . was we didn't have the story confirmed sufficiently to go to press" in yesterday's morning editions, Policinski said.

Yesterday morning, Ashe confirmed to the paper that he has AIDS and the story was printed for its international editions in Asia and Europe and on the Gannett News Service wire.


Several editors attending the annual convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington supported USA Today's action, although some said it would be a hard decision to make.

"I don't know what I would have done in that situation, but I don't want to second-guess other people," said Sanders M. LaMont of The Modesto (Calif.) Bee. "It's a hard case. I think there is a difference between high public officials and people in the public limelight who sometimes get thrust into the limelight."

Bob Steele of the Poynter Institute of St. Petersburg, Fla., which holds seminars for journalists on ethical and other issues, said, "I think it is certainly a legitimate question for a reporter to ask of that person . . . (but) it should be asked with sensitivity and compassion."

"Ashe being a very prominent person, it would be difficult not to use that information," Steele said. "I think the assumption would be that if it is true it would be information you are going to publish unless you have a significant reason to the contrary."

AIDS activists welcomed Ashe into their fold yesterday, but shared his anger over having been shoved into the spotlight unwillingly.

"There's no question that with his celebrity status he could be very helpful in the fight against AIDS - but that decision has to be his," said Carisa Cunningham, a spokeswoman for the AIDS Action Council, a national lobbying group.

Other AIDS activists strongly agreed.

"It's unfortunate it has to happen this way," said David Eng, a spokesman for the Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York. "But hopefully he can now use this and do something really good with it the same way Magic Johnson has done."


The announcement by the former tennis star put the focus on an uneasy equilibrium between a celebrity's right to privacy and his responsibility to use his fame on behalf of others.

It also harkens to the debate over "outing" - the practice by some gay activists of publicly announcing that a celebrity is homosexual. But even among those who favor outing of gays, many believe that it is wrong to disclose that someone has AIDS.

Gabriel Rotello, the former editor of Outweek, a now-defunct magazine that was dedicated to outing gays, said he didn't see much of a parallel between disclosing homosexuality and disclosing that someone has AIDS.

"Outing," he said, was intended to overcome a double standard by people who talk freely about heterosexuals' private lives but are squeamish about

discussing the private lives of homosexuals.

"But there's no such double standard when it comes to disease," he said. ''That's one area that even the most intrusive press has, until now, agreed to keep private."

"Magic" Johnson, who shocked the public in November when he announced he had the HIV virus, extended his support and prayers to Ashe and his family.

"It takes great courage and strength to make such an announcement," Johnson said. "I'm sure Arthur will meet this challenge head-on and become a leading voice in the fight to educate, raise funds and increase awareness to all, especially our youth."

Ashe said he would work to teach others about AIDS and said he was inspired by Johnson's work.

Civil rights and tennis economics both found Ashe at center stage in the 1960s and '70s.

He helped get South Africa banned from the Davis Cup because of the nation's apartheid policies in March 1970. Ashe said American black athletes should use their sports success to promote civil rights causes and took a leading role, addressing the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

Ashe scored his greatest court triumph in 1975 when he changed his game and defeated the seemingly invincible Jimmy Connors to capture Wimbledon.


* Becoming HIV-infected from a transfusion today is rare. One Red Cross estimate is that 6.5 people will get HIV for every million transfusions. Each year, 3.5 million to 4 million people get transfusions. Only 5 percent of them receive their own blood, stored in anticipation of elective surgery.

* The Centers for Disease Control has documented 20 cases of AIDS - 18 adults and two children - that developed after a transfusion of blood that had tested HIV-negative.

* The rest of the 4,770 adult and pediatric AIDS cases from transfusion - including Ashe's - came before 1985. Since 1981 in the United States, the CDC has documented 213,641 cases of AIDS, including 138,395 deaths.

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