Arthur Ashe – Tolerance
When ESPN counted down the top 100 athletes of the 20th century, eight tennis players made the list. Yet the name of Arthur Ashe, who won several tennis championships in the 1960s and 1970s, was nowhere to be found. This was not necessarily an error in judgment or an oversight by the selection committee. Ashe was undoubtedly considered for the list, but the athletes were judged solely on their on-court performances, not what they did off the court. If the selection criteria had included character and off-the-court accomplishments, the outcome would have been far different. As ESPN commentator Dick Schaap put it, “Arthur Ashe was a very, very, very good tennis player, but he was not one of the two or three greatest tennis players of all time. But if you voted on the two or three most impressive, most significant athletes of all time, you would put Arthur Ashe up there with Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali.” Ashe was indeed a great tennis player—at one point in his career he was ranked number one in the world—but he was unquestionably a better person than he was an athlete.
In 1993 ESPN, the same organization that did not include Ashe in its list of the century’s top 100 athletes, created the ESPY Awards to recognize top achievements in sports. The most prestigious part of this event is an award that is presented annually to an individual whose contributions transcend sports. This award is appropriately named the Arthur Ashe Courage Award to commemorate Ashe’s role as a humanitarian and a champion of important causes. The first person to win this esteemed award was Jim Valvano, the famed former basketball coach at North Carolina State University, who was dying of cancer at the time. It was during his acceptance speech that he included the now famous phrase, “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up!” Other notable winners of the award include Muhammad Ali (1997), Pat Tillman (2003), and four passengers from United Airlines Flight 93, who valiantly attempted to regain control of a plane hijacked by terrorists on September 11, 2001. These individuals and the other recipients are recognized as heroes and role models. Yet the award is named for a quiet, skinny tennis player who is generally not ranked among the world’s best athletes. Why did ESPN believe Ashe should be the one person so closely associated with this award? What did he do to set himself apart from all the other athletes who came before him?
To properly answer this question, one must start at the beginning. Arthur Ashe was born in 1943 and was raised in Richmond, Virginia, by a loving mother and a demanding father. Arthur’s first major setback in life occurred just before he turned seven years old, when his mother died suddenly. He had few clear memories of his mother as he got older, but the feelings of love and the connection he had with her remained intensely present throughout his life. His father took on the role of sole provider for Arthur and his brother. Once a journalist asked Ashe, “How is it that I have never heard anyone say anything bad about you?” Typical of someone raised in his generation, he said, “I guess I have never misbehaved because I’m afraid that if I did anything like that, my father would come straight up from Virginia, find me where I happen to be, and kick my ass.” Of course his gentlemanly behavior was driven by much more than a healthy fear of his father. Each Christmas, he and his father delivered food and toys to needy families. The act of giving away brand-new toys each year helped Arthur understand the true meaning of Christmas and built the foundation for his compassionate nature.
Ashe said he also felt that his mother was always watching over him and he never wanted to do anything to disappoint her. He was a religious person and considered the moral implications of his everyday behavior. He spent many hours reading the Bible and discerning the lessons he could apply to his own life. Though Ashe was introspective and a deep thinker, he thought the teachings of the church boiled down to the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Ashe diligently applied this rule to his dealings with other people, although many did not respond to him in the same way.
Ashe’s home state of Virginia, like most Southern states at the time, was racially segregated. As a black child, Arthur was not allowed to go to school with or play tennis with white children. He knew that applying to the leading university in his home state, the University of Virginia, was a waste of his time because it was also segregated. Segregation was legally sanctioned and permeated every aspect of daily life. Blacks and whites could not eat together in restaurants, ride together on the bus, or use the same water fountains or bathrooms. While all of these restrictions were insulting, the one that bothered Arthur the most was not being able to compete against white tennis players, who were usually the most talented players at the time. Despite not being able to play in youth tournaments, Arthur’s game progressed quickly and he was awarded a tennis scholarship to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).
While playing tennis at UCLA, Ashe won the NCAA singles championship and led his team to the national championship in 1965. During this time, he was asked to play on the U.S. Davis Cup team, a high honor for any tennis player, let alone a collegiate athlete. The Davis Cup is a competition that pits countries against each other to determine an eventual team champion. The United States usually fields a competitive team and is considered a perennial favorite. Ashe was the first African American ever selected for the U.S. Davis Cup team. While this was a milestone for Ashe and all African Americans, it was only one of many firsts that he would experience in his lifetime.
It is fair to say that Arthur Ashe was the Jackie Robinson of tennis. As most people know, Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball and went on to be one of the finest athletes to ever play the game, regardless of skin color. He routinely exhibited grace under pressure and changed the way black athletes were perceived in America. The same could be said of Ashe. Both men exhibited a high level of integrity and broke down many barriers for African Americans in their respective sports.
Like golf, tennis has four tournaments that are considered Grand Slam Events. Winning one of these events is enough to immortalize any player. In 1968, Ashe won the U.S. Open while he was still an amateur. Because he was a college student and not a professional tennis player, he was not allowed to accept the prize money. However, he won a place in history as the first black male to ever win the U.S. Open. In 1970, he won his second Grand Slam event, the Australian Open, again becoming the first African American to win this tournament. Five years later he won the most prized award in tennis, the Wimbledon championship. Ashe won the Wimbledon tournament, which is held annually in England, as a 10-to-one underdog to Jimmy Connors, whose name was later included on the list of the top 100 greatest athletes of the century. Ashe did not win the singles title at the French Open, the fourth grand slam event, but he did win the doubles championship. No black male has won a Grand Slam event since.
In his 10 years as a pro, Ashe won 51 tournaments, including 33 singles titles and 18 doubles titles. Ashe was especially pleased with his Davis Cup record. He considered himself a true patriot and loved playing for the United States of America. He played 32 matches against the best players in the world and won 27, the most ever won by any individual until that point. He was also appointed Davis Cup captain, amassing a 13-3 record and winning back-to-back titles in 1981 and 1982. By anybody’s account, Ashe was a tremendous tennis player, and as such, was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame for his athletic achievements. However, he was more proud of his demeanor on the court than his actual accomplishments, saying, “I had done nothing, through scandal or bad behavior, to bring the game into disrepute.”
It was always important to Ashe to be a leader on and off the court and to display outstanding character. He wrote in his autobiography, “I want to be seen as fair and honest, trustworthy, kind, calm, and polite. I want no stain on my character, no blemish on my reputation. I know that I haven’t always lived without error or sin, but I also know that I have tried hard to be honest and good at all times.” These are not the usual sentiments we hear from professional athletes.
One reason he felt so strongly about inequality was his memory of the discrimination he experienced early in life. He did not want others to face such hatred. And though Ashe had a special place in his heart for his own race, he wasn’t merely concerned with the plight of African Americans.
He wrote, “In the end, I am not for black or white, nor even for the United States of America, but for the whole of humanity. I can’t define myself finally as an African American, or American. My humanity comes first.” That statement, more than any other, is the essence of Arthur Ashe. He had compassion for, and was tolerant of, all people. Whenever and wherever he saw injustice, he was determined to do something about it.
Once Ashe became a prominent athlete, he used his status to become a social activist. He later reflected, “I wanted to make a difference, however small, in the world, and I wanted to do so in a useful and honorable way.” After Ashe won the U.S. Open in 1968, a white South African player told him that he would not be allowed to play in an upcoming tournament in Johannesburg. South Africa at the time was operating under the rule of apartheid, which legalized racial discrimination by the white English/Dutch colonialists against the black Africans. Under South African law, Ashe was not allowed to play in a tournament against white players, despite proving that he could compete with and beat many of these players. This ruling was reminiscent of Ashe’s younger days in Virginia, and he was not about to let this form of discrimination continue without a fight. When Ashe applied for a visa to enter South Africa in 1969, his application was rejected. He applied again in 1970, 1971, and 1972. Rejected, rejected, rejected. Finally, his application to enter the country and play in the South African Open was accepted in 1973.
Ashe played well in his matches, winning the doubles championship and finishing second in the singles event. However, his real goal was to learn more about apartheid and create change. Before agreeing to play, he demanded that seating for his matches be integrated, a request that was granted. Before and after his matches, he went out to meet with the people and see for himself the injustices that were occurring in South Africa. Black people were not allowed to vote in their own country; whites and blacks were not allowed to marry each other; blacks were assigned to limited regions of the country in which they could live and were required to carry passbooks in order to enter white areas. This practice essentially kept blacks from moving about freely within their own country. If blacks refused to carry a passbook or protested against this immoral form of government, they could suffer strict penalties.
As an American, Ashe was permitted to move freely around South Africa, and as you might imagine, this created quite a stir. One black child followed him every day and curiously watched his every move. Ashe finally approached the boy and asked, “Why are you following me around?” The boy replied, “Because you are the first one I have ever seen. You are the first truly free black man I have ever seen.” These words had a lasting impact on Ashe. Armed with firsthand knowledge of this oppressive government and seeing the effects it had on 19 million blacks in South Africa, he felt an obligation to do more.
Ashe participated in peaceful protests against apartheid, once even getting arrested during a demonstration in Washington, D.C. He also played a major role in getting South Africa banned from Davis Cup play. He called on some of his closest friends to boycott playing in tournaments in South Africa. Ashe made speeches and spoke out against the South African government. He became so involved in protesting apartheid that many people said it interfered with his tennis game. In fact, Ashe only won one Grand Slam Event after 1970. However, he admitted that he was more concerned with freeing millions of oppressed people than simply winning a tennis match, saying, “We must forget ourselves and work for others, even if what we do today may or may not bear fruit until two or three generations.” Ashe understood that his role as a human being was to help others, not to serve his own self-interest.
Fortunately, the efforts of Ashe and others did not take two or three generations to create change. Frank Deford, a writer for Sports Illustrated, credited Ashe with helping to end apartheid, saying, “Arthur cracked the curtain of apartheid. Once the curtain was opened just a little bit, there wasn’t any way the South Africans could bring it back again.” In 1977, the United Nations began to put pressure on South Africa to end apartheid. The UN’s embargos, sanctions, and boycotts took their toll on the South African government, culminating in an all-race election in 1994. The winner was Nelson Mandela, a black man who had been imprisoned from 1962-1990 for opposing apartheid and the South African government. While in prison, Mandela had read A Hard Road to Glory, a three- volume work on the history of African Americans in sports, written by Ashe. When Mandela later visited New York, he wanted to meet Ashe. President Mandela embraced him and told him how much of an inspiration his book was to him while he was in prison.
It took Ashe many years to write A Hard Road to Glory, but he was dedicated to telling a story that had received little attention. Herb Boyd said of Ashe’s book, “It’s just a remarkable collection of the kind of contributions that black athletes made in this country. He brought the missing pages of African American history to us.” In researching his book, he became deeply concerned by the fact that only one in four black college athletes at the Division I level graduated from college. He started the Athletes Career Connection and the African-American Athletic Association to mentor young black athletes and emphasize the importance of attaining a college education.
In 1979 he suffered a heart attack and subsequently underwent quadruple bypass surgery, which ultimately led to his retirement from professional tennis in 1980. In 1983 he had another heart attack and underwent double bypass surgery. In 1988 he underwent brain surgery. At that time, tests revealed the biggest blow yet to his health. Ashe was HIV-positive. He also suffered from a rare infection of the brain called toxoplasmosis, one of the two dozen or so diseases associated with HIV. In other words, Ashe had AIDS. He learned all of this within a span of 24 hours.
At that time, being diagnosed with AIDS was a certain death sentence. Because Ashe did not use intravenous drugs, was not gay, and had been faithful to his wife, doctors were able to trace the origins of the virus to a blood transfusion that he received after his 1983 bypass surgery. At that time, blood was not tested for HIV, and Ashe became part of the two percent of AIDS patients who contracted the disease through a blood transfusion. In 1985 the U.S. government began testing all blood banks for HIV—a few years too late for Ashe.
Because Ashe was a private person and did not want to alarm his young daughter, he planned to keep the news of his AIDS out of the public arena. However, in 1992 a national newspaper threatened to go public with this personal information. With a great deal of anxiety and trepidation, Ashe held a news conference to tell the world that he had AIDS. At the time of the press conference, he had less than one year to live. However, many would argue that Ashe is better known for what he did in the last 10 months of his life than what he did in the previous 49 years. He took the same passion he had for other causes and focused it on AIDS and its many victims. At a time when the world had very little understanding, tolerance, and compassion for people with AIDS, Ashe forced Americans to face their prejudices and become more fully informed about the disease. Legendary news commentator Barbara Walters had this to say: “After Arthur Ashe spoke out, people said, ‘It can happen to anyone.’ And I think it changed people’s understanding of AIDS and who could get it.”
The former tennis star soon founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS. Like a true champion, he was not just out to do battle with the disease, he wanted the foundation to conquer AIDS. He once said, “Maybe there’s not a cure for AIDS in time for me, but certainly for everyone else, and that should be enough to maintain this hope.” Aside from conquering AIDS, he wanted Americans to have a better understanding of the ways the disease was spread and to be more tolerant of those who had the disease.
It was a time when people were afraid to shake hands with or breathe the same air as somebody with AIDS because of the unfounded fear that it was some kind of germ that could be passed from person to person. Ashe was one of the first people to dispel some of these misconceptions. He said, “You can kiss me, you can hug me, you can shake my hand, you can drink out of the same glass. I can sneeze on you, I can cough on you, you’re not going to get it from me.” Ashe even had a rare opportunity to speak to the United Nations about the disease.
Until his death, Ashe worked tirelessly to educate people about the realities of AIDS. Author Herb Boyd noted, “So long as he could be articulate and had the strength to get up to the lectern, I mean right down to his final days, he was still out there waging the struggle.” Unfortunately, Ashe lost his personal struggle with AIDS, dying in 1993. His foundation, however, continues to raise millions of dollars to fight AIDS on behalf of the 38 million people with the disease worldwide. Ashe would be devastated to know that an estimated 20 million people worldwide have died of AIDS.
Many honors have been bestowed on Arthur Ashe. After his death, the main stadium at Flushing Meadow, the site of the U.S. Open, was named after him. Each year on the day preceding the U.S. Open, children flock to this site to celebrate Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day and commemorate the spirit and legacy of the late tennis player. Twelve years after Ashe’s retirement from tennis, Sports Illustrated named him Sportsman of the Year. Using the photograph from that magazine cover, the U.S. Postal Service plans to release a commemorative postage stamp in 2005 to honor him. In 1996 Ashe’s hometown of Richmond honored him with a 12-foot bronze statue on Monument Avenue, one of the city’s best-known and most historical streets. Ashe’s likeness now stands where statues of the Civil War’s Confederate leaders once stood. “Arthur Ashe is a true Virginia hero, and he belongs here,” said his brother, Johnnie Ashe. Even after his death, Ashe is still creating change and having a positive impact.
Ashe did so much for humankind and was a role model for us all. He had many talents—he was an excellent athlete, a scholar, a social activist, a teacher, a writer, a sports analyst, a husband, and a father. In the last year of his life he wrote his autobiography, Days of Grace. The following are some of the last words he ever wrote: “Whatever happens, I know that I am not going to be alone at the end. I have invested in friendship all my life. I have been patient and attentive, forgiving and considerate, even with some people who probably did not deserve it. I made the investment of time and energy, and now the dividends [are] being returned to me in kindness.” He knew that the more you give, the more you receive. Never was this truer than for Arthur Ashe.
Some people believe that no modern athlete since Ashe has stepped up to make such enormous contributions to humankind. As sociologist Harry Edwards said, “There’s a tremendous deficit in the dialogue around American sport as a consequence of Arthur not being here. Nobody has really replaced him. That bridge is out, it’s gone.” Even Ashe’s widow, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, is afraid that his legacy might get lost in this era of big money and instant gratification. She reminds us, “Arthur used his life to move us all forward. The young people today don’t really know Arthur. I think it would be just an absolute travesty if they only thought of him as a tennis player who died of AIDS.” After reading this chapter, I hope you know much more than that about the great Arthur Ashe.
- As a boy, what did Arthur do each year for Christmas?
- Give at least two examples of how Arthur confronted issues of tolerance during his lifetime?
- Arthur took great care to be remembered as a person of great character. How did he lead his life to turn that into a reality?
- What disease did Arthur get diagnosed with? How did he get it and how did he respond once diagnosed?
- What inspires you about Arthur Ashe and how can his life make you a better person?