|Thursday, February 6
Updated: February 7, 4:51 PM ET
Ashe's activism helped mold the future
By Greg Garber
When a statue of native son Arthur Ashe was proposed in Richmond, Va., there was a blaze of controversy -- as there was so often in his life.
In the end, a striking 12-foot bronze statue, set on a 44-ton granite base, was unveiled July 10, 1996, the day Ashe would have turned 53. The statue depicts Ashe in tennis warm-ups and sneakers, holding books in one hand and tennis rackets in the other. Four children gaze up at him and there is this inscription from the Bible: "Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us."
Less than six years later, the charged weight of controversy has been laid aside. As in so many instances in Ashe's life, conflict has been followed by resolution. The Ashe statue, at the corner of Roseneath and Monument Avenues, is a popular tourist attraction.
"I live in the neighborhood and you often see people taking pictures," said Janene Charbeneau, of the Richmond Convention and Visitor's Bureau. "Once the controversy settled down, Richmonders have come to accept it."
Ashe, set among the proud boys of Dixie, makes for a contradictory juxtaposition he probably would have appreciated. In the crucible of the turbulent 1960s, Ashe's superior moral compass left him at odds with a number of haughty institutions.
When Ashe, after three unsuccessful tries, finally received a visa to play in South Africa in 1973, he was widely criticized in the black press and by activists. His refusal to honor an international boycott of the country that endorsed segregation prompted charges that he was an "Uncle Tom." What wasn't commonly known was that in his negotiations with the government Ashe had insisted on an integrated stadium at Johannesburg's Ellis Park, a first. When he won the doubles title with Tom Okker, there were tears in the eyes of the black fans, who nicknamed him "Sipho," or a "gift from God," in Zulu.
So many seeming contradictions in a single man. Athlete and activist. In 1985, the year he was enshrined in the International Tennis Hall of Fame, Ashe was one of 47 arrested for protesting against apartheid in front of the South African embassy in Washington. Rebel and educator. In 1992, he was arrested outside the White House for protesting the treatment of Haitian refugees -- the same year he was celebrated as Sports Illustrated's "Sportsman of the Year."
Clarence Page, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Chicago Tribune, compares Ashe to Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball's color line in 1947. Was it a coincidence, Page wondered, that after Robinson stepped into the lineup for the Brooklyn Dodgers, President Truman desegregated the armed services? Or that schools soon followed? Or that Rosa Parks found the courage to fight the status quo?
"Arthur Ashe was a fellow who was not only appropriate to break the color barrier in his sport, but understood the larger significance of his achievement," Page said. "You cannot underestimate the power that sport has for social change. It has a great visceral impact on our culture.
"That, to me, is his most important legacy. Like Jackie Robinson and [Muhammad] Ali and Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe went beyond sports to advance history."
Cause ... and effect
Consider Ashe's remarkable tennis resume: three Grand Slam singles titles, the 1968 U.S. Open, the 1970 Australian Open and that majestic triumph at Wimbledon five years later, 33 career victories and the 23,000-seat stadium that bears his name at the National Tennis Center, the largest tennis venue in the world.
Compared to his monumental achievements off the court -- even taking the precedent-setting nature of his victories into account -- these seem, with all due respect, almost irrelevant.
Cause: Ending apartheid.
Cause: Creating tennis opportunities for minority youth.
Effect: As a leading critic of the oppressive regime, Ashe along with many others, saw the restoration of democracy in Haiti.
Cause: Improving academic standards for athletes.
Cause: Increasing awareness of black sports history.
He also embraced causes that touched him personally. After a heart attack forced him to retire at the age of 36 in 1979, Ashe became the national chairman of the American Heart Association. After it was revealed that he was HIV-positive -- it is believed he received tainted blood during his heart surgeries in either 1979 or 1983 -- Ashe was a tireless champion of AIDS awareness and the search for a cure of the disease that eventually claimed his life. Despite the immediate stigma attached to AIDS no matter how one acquired it, Ashe brought attention to the disease in a time when fears about it prompted some to propose those afflicted be placed in leper colonies.
"Athletes are usually known for what they do between the lines," said MaliVai Washington, who in 1996 became the first African-American man to reach the final at Wimbledon since Ashe in 1975. "So many people are just interested in achieving the most in their sport, making the most money they can. He believed there was more to his life on earth than hitting a tennis ball. He took his stature in tennis and parleyed it into a way to impact millions and millions of people.
"Arthur said in his book ["Days of Grace"] something along the lines of, 'My life has been a failure if all I'm remembered for is being a tennis player.' How many people see the world in those terms? By that standard a lot of athletes would be failures -- a lot of nonathletes, too."
Dr. Harry Edwards, the prominent sociologist and activist, first met Ashe in 1968 when he proposed that the tennis star join an organized boycott that would result in the black power display by U.S. Olympic sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith in the Mexico City Summer Games.
"He said, 'I understand your position, but that's not my way,' " Edwards said. "Not three weeks later, he calls me and says, 'How are things?' And I'm like, 'This guy is a crank.' You know, if you're not with us, you're against us. Eventually, I came to see his side.
"I moved from thinking this guy's a Tom, to this guy's a crank, to this guy's really something special. I had always been in people's faces, telling them what the deal was -- and they'd drive you right into the ground. In a meeting, I'd say good morning and they'd take it as a death threat. Arthur, even if he disagreed with you, you came out, 'Man, what a great guy.' I tried to learn from Arthur as I got older.
"His intellect resolved a path and strategy and he was not hesitant to follow. His feet moved in the same direction as his words. His legacy of reasoned compassion is what I cherish the most."
A second coming?
"By the 1980s, partly because of the success of the black liberation movement, it just ran out of gas," Dr. Edwards said. "The growing complexity of the issues meant that it was virtually impossible for any kind of movement to get under way on a national level that would generate this type of focused leadership.
"What was a leadership of expression has now generated into self-indulgence. When athletes express themselves now, it's something ridiculous; standing up for something has been replaced by dancing in the end zone or a slam dunk. There is nothing systematic behind today's athletes. They wind up pushing personal agendas. You see people like Dennis Rodman who take this right up to the gates of the asylum."
Richard Lapchick, chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program at the University of Central Florida, is a leading expert on sport and society.
"Arthur Ashe, Ali and Bill Russell were among the handful of athletes who were willing to stand up for social issues," Lapchick said from his Florida office. "The price they paid is one reason that today's athletes, Tiger Woods included, find it's safer to be more neutral."
While today's athletes are more focused on their place in the world than the world around them, the same is true of their entire generation. As Lapchick pointed out, fewer of today's college students read newspapers or watch television news than their parents did. Still, Lapchick is an optimist; he hopes athletes will once again rally around important causes.
"We have had a safety net around us in this country for generations that has insulated us," Lapchick said. "I think Sept. 11 introduced a different dimension for all of us, athletes included. It's drawn public attention to social issues, so maybe people will think more in the future."
Lapchick cited New Jersey Nets center Dikembe Mutumbo, who has donated millions to improve conditions in his native Congo, and Pat Tillman, who left the Arizona Cardinals in the wake of the Sept.11 attacks to join the elite Army Rangers Special Operations unit.
"These are young athletes," Lapchick said, "making decisions that can have a great impact on our youth."
He did not mention Tiger Woods, the two-time defending Masters champion who has been criticized widely for not speaking out against the anti-women membership policies at Augusta National Golf Club.
"Not only do athletes get hammered when they come out and take a stand," said Page, "but now they get hammered when they don't take a stand. Personally, I don't want to add any pressure to Tiger Woods or any other racial pioneer to do anything more than just do his or her job well."
Said Edwards: "This man has a chance to win an unprecedented third [consecutive] green jacket and the chance to totally shatter the notion that minorities and blacks don't deserve to be there. And people are whacking him. That's why you don't hear what Michael Jordan thinks about going to war with Iraq. That's why people don't know what these athletes believe."
"It is an answer," Edwards said, "I'd give a lot to know."
Blake, the tennis player, was asked what he thought of Woods' silence on the subject of female membership at Augusta National. Initially, he warily wandered around the subject.
"I don't know exactly what Tiger Woods' thoughts were on the situation," Blake said. "I would never criticize him for anything without knowing the whole story."
A little later, Blake added, "I feel like it's an issue that's pretty serious and it would help, I think, if Tiger Woods weighed in on it.
"But I guess he claims it's not his job. I would like to see people taking their job a little further, as opposed to just playing golf or just playing basketball or football."
Washington, on the other hand, believes Woods is doing more than his part.
"Unfortunately, a lot of people believe it's an athlete's responsibility to make a stand, in this case, against Augusta," Washington said. "Why not ask the other players on the tour? Ask the majority, not the minority. Don't kick Tiger because he hasn't come out with a hard-line stance. I hate it when people say athletes aren't doing this or that. My response is to say, 'Look in the mirror. What did you do for the world today?'
"Everyone as a citizen has a duty to better the community. We all have spheres of influence. Politicians and athletes can influence millions and millions, but the guy who makes $20,000 a year can make a difference, too. It's his responsibility to be a responsible citizen and have a positive impact on the community -- whether it's working with illiterate youth, homeless people or preventing cruelty to the spotted owl.
"And it's not just money, it's your time, it's your sweat."
Edwards, for one, is putting his money where his eloquent mouth is. He is investing in the future as the director of Oakland's Parks and Recreation Department.
"It's time for us 60-somethings to get back into the fray," Edwards said. "If Arthur was here, he'd find a grassroots niche where he could make a difference.
"The differences are more subtle than they were in the 1960s. It used to be that there were no black professors or black assistant coaches. Now there are some on every staff, in every university. Now, more than ever, we need that person with the intellect that does not sacrifice the compassion and the compassion that does not burn itself out.
"We need Arthur."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com