Dominick Shattuck, PhD, is a social and behavioral health scientist at FHI 360. Dominick has previously shared his reflection on Magic’s HIV announcement on FHI 360’s “Degrees” blog.
Recently, I was reminded that my research on HIV started 20 years ago and at the time, I didn’t know it. November 7th, 1991 was the day that Magic Johnson announced that he is HIV-positive.
That afternoon, my five roommates and I, all college athletes, huddled around the TV watching ESPN in disbelief. Magic was the main combatant to our beloved Larry Bird, but respected as a basketball icon with a warm smile and an undeniably great personality. We hated what he did to our Celtics, but nobody could hate Magic Johnson. As we sat in the dorm and listened to Magic tell us that he was HIV-positive, a strange discomfort set in among us that was based in a few different things: 1) our ignorance of HIV, 2) our denial that this could happen to someone we knew (because a young person’s attachment to an icon is real), and 3) our misunderstanding that being HIV-positive meant almost immediate death.
In the weeks that followed, Magic’s announcement was a part of our conversations. We discussed the reports of his numerous sexual partners, the stigma he faced from other players (i.e., Karl Malone) and all the pills he needed to stay alive. Later, we watched in awe as he played basketball again at the highest level and on more than one occasion forced governments (such as Taiwan) to make an exception to their visa policies. At the same time, our dormitory brought in HIV-positive speakers, young people, our age who contracted the infection through sex or drug use. Many of the speakers were far less healthy than Magic Johnson. And condoms became part of our regular conversation about sex. After Magic’s announcement, we talked about using them, in our own way, for more than pregnancy avoidance.
Today I thought I would take a few minutes to remind folks of this event because I feel it’s relevant to our work and likely a relative experience that we all shared in different contexts. If you’re less familiar with how newsworthy Magic’s HIV status announcement was, you can read this ESPN article or watch the documentary, “The Announcement.” The article provides the following quote, which gives a small glimpse of the impact Magic’s HIV positive status had on our country in 1991, “It’s the first time I’ve ever seen reporters crying.”
Twenty years later, Magic is alive and doing well thanks to his drugs, great medical care, healthy lifestyle and a positive attitude. Although the focus of our work does not target celebrity athletes with worldwide appeal, those things that keep Magic alive and the impact of his announcement are relevant to our work. They also reflect changes in attitudes and behaviors toward HIV that many people never imagined could happen.