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My Thoughts on ESPN’s “The Announcement” documentary on Magic Johnson

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If you weren’t able to check out The Announcement last night on ESPN make sure you check the listings and try to see it. The documentary chronicles Magic Johnson’s life starting a bit before he found out he was H.I.V positive. Most of the documentary centers around the ensuing controversies after Magic tells the world about his illness: the decision to retire, other players’ being worried about any risk of catching the disease—with the most vocal critic being Utah Jazz’ Karl Malone, and how the NBA wrestled with whether or not to “align” itself with Magic when it came to the All star game and his presence on the 1992 Dream Team.

Those who are my age (30) and older you’ll remember much of this in real time, but in retrospect Magic’s handling of his diagnosis is even more phenomenal than it seemed at the time.  I especially reminded of this when Magic talks about the transition from being essentially one of the most beloved athletes to people being afraid to shake his hand. Only now, am I acutely aware of the level of ostracizing Magic experienced. And if a beloved athlete can be isolated like that you can imagine what happened to regular folks with the disease at that time.

As I watched the documentary, I remembered my own thinking at the time. I grew up in a very small town and even then we had been taught that the potential to spread HIV was extremely low in casual contact. I remember being very confused as to why Magic had to retire if he wasn’t too sick to play or why players didn’t want to play with him. I just remember being very angry and confused about what was happening and also happy when Magic returned but feeling that part of his career had been unfairly wasted.

And the ensuing weirdness in the league over small scrapes and cuts where games would be stopped and uniforms changed felt all the more silly.  All of it looks even sillier in retrospect.

I realize that the country wasn’t quite as informed about HIV as we are now (and even now I’d question how informed we are beyond HIV isn’t a death sentence), but much of the information that was available was ignored in favor of appeasing the uninformed (under the guise of “playing it safe.”  And that should be made clear—people weren’t just ignorant they were willfully ignorant.

**in walks Karl Malone**

[To read the rest of this post including my thoughts on Cookie Johnson click the Read More tab below]

I do give Karl Malone lots of credit for being willing to participate in the documentary and admit to his behavior back then. Beyond that, Malone remains the same shady dude who got a 13 year old girl pregnant and denied three of his children for most of their lives.  And THIS is the guy we allowed to lead the charge against Magic playing. Incredible.

As is common now, I watched the documentary while on twitter (where Karl Malone was appropriately skewered) and one of the biggest things that annoyed me was the reaction many people—especially those of  the male douchebag variety—had about Cookie Johnson’s decision to stay with Magic despite his diagnosis. For some, Cookie Johnson is now the example of what women (particularly black women) should be doing since between Tyrese, Steve Harvey, and any other number of blog sites, books and other tripe written by men we don’t have enough people telling us how deficient we are on a daily basis.

At any rate, it bothered me to see people trivialize the decision that Cookie made to some Loretta Lynn type stand-by-your-man bullshit. I don’t know all the details of why Cookie chose to stay with Magic Johnson and I’m not going to guess. But women should not, under any circumstances, be made to feel ashamed or guilty for putting their health before their allegiance to a man.  Nor should we blindly celebrate women who accept high risk behavior. We simply cannot afford to further adopt that mentality.

Yes I said “further” because overall this is mentality that persists in many communities. It’s also, unfortunately, a way of thinking that starts very young in our girls: From Crunk Feminist Collective:

When teaching a class in central Florida and discussing strategies for encouraging safe sex a student, who worked at a health clinic part time, noted that young women would come in and be treated for STI’s.  She said that even though the staff would give them tempered warnings and free condoms those same young women would come back, weeks or months later, with another STI.  When confronted about the risk of unprotected sex they responded “my boyfriend doesn’t like them,” or “he says we don’t need them (because we are in love).”  These girls were as young as fifteen and had already exposed themselves to the possibility of contracting a lifelong disease.

The same week that this documentary was released we find out that AIDs rates in black women in many large cities in United States rival the rates in parts of Africa. So needless to say this wasn’t the time for men to herald Cookie’s PERSONAL decision NOT to do something that health educators work OVER TIME to get women to do which is shy away from partners with risky sexual habits whenever possible. In large part because it’s easier for men to transfer a disease like HIV to women than vice versa. Far be it from me to de-romanticize Cookie and Magic’s story with pesky health facts. But I cringe at the thought of ladies and women with much less resources than Cookie Johnson feeling like they have to live up to some standard misguided folks believe she has set for loyalty in a relationship.

On a related note regarding education, Magic’s hope in all of this was that he could change minds on HIV and educate folks to be more responsible. And as a spokesperson for the disease he has been incomparable. He has held true to his principles on this even when the attention died down and he could have never mentioned it again. I think Magic’s quest, and others’, to change  “attitudes” has been a success for the most part. But thus far I don’t know that our action reflect an understanding that this disease is still a very serious one.

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