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Uh-oh, it's Magic - return of HIV-positive Magic Johnson to basketball - Column
National Review,  April 22, 1996  by Chris Weiskopf
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AFTER Earvin "Magic" Johnson's much-celebrated return from his HIV-imposed retirement, the Los Angeles Lakers' owner, Jerry Buss, wistfully noted that he felt "the same as Louis Armstrong did when he sang 'Hello Dolly' for the first time: 'It's so nice to have you back where you belong."' Buss has good reason to croon. The Lakers, once the Western Conference's lone superpower, haven't won a championship since 1988. This year, prior to Magic Johnson's return, they managed to sell out their arena only once all season. The Magical second coming has already resurrected ticket sales, and has made the Lakers formidable once again. The league is equally elated. Johnson and his rival, Larry Bird, saved the NBA from terminal unpopularity in 1979, and officials are hoping for a repeat performance. Commissioner David Stern telephoned Magic after his first game back. "I wanted him to know how happy I am he's back playing," he gloated. "I just told him to watch his hamstrings."

But Magic's hamstrings should be the least of the NBA's worries. Does a player who is HIV-positive pose a threat to other players? The answer is: Yes, a threat that will probably never materialize, but which will be fatal if it does.

The NBA has done all it can to disparage such concerns. Dr. Michael Johnson, who heads the Players' Association's health-education program, assures skeptics that the chances of contracting HIV during the course of a game are "infinitesimal," and Magic's supporters frequently cite Centers for Disease Control statistics that place the risk of infection through "incidental contact" at one in 85 million. The problem is that contact in professional basketball is far from incidental. Competitors frequently collide, crash, and claw one another while fighting for rebounds, often drawing blood.

Dr. Johnson is nonchalant about these hazards: "I liken this situation to health-care workers," he says. "Years ago, a lot of doctors and nurses didn't want to take care of persons with HIV. Now you seldom hear about that." But taking such risks is an integral part of a doctor's job; and even then, few physicians would be willing to treat AIDS patients without sterilized equipment and rubber gloves. Risking AIDS is not an integral part of basketball, and such protections are unavailable to the players. So why take the risk?

This is what convinced Johnson to abort an earlier comeback effort in 1992, when several players, most notably Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz, expressed their fears. Malone pointed to the scars and scabs that dotted his arms, and said, "They can't tell me you're not at risk. And you can't tell me there's one guy in the NBA who hasn't thought about it." Today, the players seem surprisingly receptive to the idea of putting their lives at risk. Only a handful have questioned the wisdom of Johnson's comeback.

This shift in sentiment is due to an intensive league-sponsored effort at re-education -- sensitivity training for jocks. As Dr. Johnson explains, the players are currently "better informed" (meaning less fearful of infection) "than they were back in 1991 when we started working with [them]." But there is an uncanny unanimity about the players' pronouncements. When asked if he was uneasy about playing against someone with HIV, Chicago Bulls Steve Kerr replied, "We're not going to be on the court having unprotected sex with Magic." Golden State Warriors Ron Seikaly echoed, "We're not going to have unprotected sex on the basketball court." And Phoenix Suns Charles Barkley chimed, "It's not like we're going to have unprotected sex with Magic on the floor."

Magic explains: The players "have educated themselves. When you educate yourself, you don't have to think all those crazy thoughts" -- like, you might catch AIDS. Karl Malone, who opposed Magic's first comeback, now concurs. "I have no problem playing against him, absolutely not. We're more knowledgeable now." But education is not quite the same thing as parroting identical platitudes. That sounds more like indoctrination in the "correct" beliefs, backed up by ostracism. Those who challenge the league's AIDS orthodoxy invite stigmatization as "ignorant." As Armon Gilliam of the New Jersey Nets notes, "The swell of media support has really gotten behind Magic getting back, so a lot of players don't want to be unpopular and make a strong statement against it." Charles Smith, San Antonio Spur and union vice president, warns that any member who criticizes Magic's decision "would be condemned to no end" in the realm of public opinion.

For this reason, few of those who are apprehensive dare to express their anxieties to the press. Newspaper columns generally have to attribute negative statements to anonymous sources. Philadelphia 76er Vernon Maxwell -- who complained to the Los Angeles Times that "You get scratched on your hand and then he might get an open wound. I don't want to be there with that. I have a wife and kids" -- must now regret his candor. Time described him as "troublemaking" and one of "a few holdouts on the side of ignorance." And Magic, blissfully unaware of the irony, riposted that Maxwell "has never cared about anyone but himself."

Similarly, New York Knick Derek Harper, who wondered out loud how players would react if Magic cut himself, has since been reduced to silence. The mere suspicion of Magic-skepticism can be damning. So when a New York writer reported that Steve Smith of the Miami Heat was uncomfortable about guarding an HIV-positive counterpart, Smith rushed to defend his name. "I never said anything about Magic," he insisted, adding, "I'm taking a lot of flak." Laker trainer Gary Vitti even risked exposure to contaminated blood during Magic's first revival in 1992 -- treating an open wound with bare hands -- to avoid charges of hypocrisy. "If I had put the gloves on," he remonstrated, "that would have been a mixed message. The other players would have said, 'Hey, Gary, if I can't get it how come you're using gloves?' "

The NBA has since instituted some safeguards: it now requires trainers to wear latex gloves when treating open wounds, and mandates that cut players take to the bench until the bleeding has stopped and the lesion has been properly bandaged. But such precautions still leave room for danger; the best way to protect against infection would be to bar those with HIV from the game. Stern balks at the suggestion: "This is not Salem. This is the United States. This is the NBA." And, "We can't have quarantine searches and then throw those who test positive out of the league." But this is exactly what the NBA does with its drug-testing program, and HIV carriers are certainly more likely to imperil their teammates than are drug users. Still, Stern argues that singling out HIV-positive players would be "unfair" and "un-American."

Image and marketing, not the health and safety of its players, drive NBA policy. It is doubtful that the league would have gone to such lengths if the player in question were less talented, or less popular. Likewise, it is hard to imagine the media working themselves into a comparable fit of adulation if Magic suffered from a less fashionable affliction -- hepatitis, say, or gonorrhea. But the combination of AIDS's politically sensitive nature and Magic's charm has yielded an odd public reaction. The press and the NBA lionize Johnson for being twice irresponsible -- first in contracting the disease and then in endangering his colleagues --and they chastise the protestors for doing precisely what he failed to do: being mindful of their health.

But what will happen to this unusual alliance of corporate greed and political correctness when Johnson sustains his first laceration? Brian Williams, a Magic-supporting player for the Los Angeles Clippers, sums up the league's attitude nicely: "I don't see a problem" with Johnson's return, he says, "but when Magic gets cut, it will be like turning on the lights with a kitchen full of roaches."

COPYRIGHT 1996 National Review, Inc.
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