Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Magic Johnson, AIDS, and "The Announcement," 20 Years Later

The ESPN film, “The Announcement,” transports us back two decades to 1991, when basketball superstar Earvin “Magic” Johnson told the nation he was HIV positive. The attitudes revealed in the program, however, make it feel like a century ago.  In a time when AIDS has become a treatable chronic condition, the documentary reminds its audience of an era when the disease was a death sentence and one of the most controversial issues in the country.

Doctors first encountered AIDS in the early 1980s, when it began to appear among groups of gay men in major cities.  Over time, it became clear that the illness, which weakened an individual’s immune system, produced a 100% fatality rate.  When actor Rock Hudson announced that he had contracted the illness in 1985, awareness of the disease increased dramatically.

Still, ignorance marked the early years of the AIDS epidemic with many believing they could get the illness through causal contact.  The Reagan Administration was slow to respond to the crisis and some social conservatives blamed the disease on the gay community, with Pat Buchanan declaring, "The poor homosexuals -- they have declared war upon nature, and now nature is extracting an awful retribution.”  Ryan White, a teenage hemophiliac who had contracted the virus through a blood transfusion, became the public face of the illness because he was an “innocent” victim of the disease.

“The Announcement” recalls these times, when even a star like Magic had a difficult time getting people to work out with him because he had HIV.  His appearance in the NBA All-Star game a few months after his press conference was fraught with controversy, with some players fearful about being on the court with Magic.  When Johnson attempted a full-scale comeback in the fall of 1992, it ended during the preseason because some players were reluctant to physically challenge him.  Utah Jazz All-Star Karl Malone, Magic’s teammate on the 1992 U.S. Olympic “Dream Team,” openly expressed concerns about playing against Johnson.

One notable omission from “The Announcement” is Magic’s appearance on the Arsenio Hall Show the day after his admission.  During the interview, Hall, a close friend of Johnson’s, asked him about the association of AIDS with the gay community.  Magic responded by declaring he was the “furthest thing from a homosexual” and the crowd hooted and hollered in approval. It is interesting that this clip, which seems anachronistic today but reflected the homophobia of the time, was left out.

Also, Nelson George, the director of the film, compares Magic’s revelation to the Kennedy assassination, calling it a moment that everyone remembers where he or she was when they heard about it. Though Johnson’s press conference was an important event, I don’t think it quite rises to that level of importance, though I’d be curious as to what readers think in this regard.

When Magic made his announcement, the collective national and international reaction was that he would die in relatively short order.  Indeed, AIDS advocates criticized Johnson’s optimism about beating the disease as evidence of denial. In the mid-1990s, however, AIDS researchers like David Ho, who treated Johnson in the early stages of the illness, developed the “cocktail,” which limited the effectiveness of the virus, allowing people to live long and productive lives while HIV positive.  Though there was no moment of national celebration as there was when Jonas Salk introduced the polio vaccine in the 1950s, the illness gradually receded from the headlines and is no longer the front-page news it was from the early 80s to the mid-90s. 

Nevertheless, it should not be forgotten that the virus continues to ravage the developing world, particularly Africa.  In another example of changing times, American evangelicals have become outspoken supporters of the effort to prevent the spread of AIDS in Africa.  Such behavior, embodied by the considerable financial support for AIDS programs in Africa during the George W. Bush Administration, represents a dramatic shift from the initial reaction of social conservatives to the epidemic.

Today, Magic Johnson is a tremendously successful businessman and TV announcer.  He has almost completely eliminated the stigma of the illness from himself, earning major endorsements like he did during his athletic prime in the 1980s.  Amazingly, Ho says Magic’s immune system is now stronger than it was when he was initially diagnosed in 1991. As Johnson himself notes, his survival is both a blessing and a curse, providing evidence of the success one can have living with HIV while also diminishing fear about its consequences.

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