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The 'Conspiracy' To Keep Arthur Ashe's Secret

NEW YORK — New York. -- In his first public discussion about being infected with AIDS, Arthur Ashe made a point of thanking the people who had known for several years about his condition but kept it quiet. There were relatives and doctors, close friends and former tennis buddies who knew but did not talk. As Mr. Ashe put it, "There was a silent and generous conspiracy to assist me in maintaining my privacy."

What he did not mention was the fact that at least a few well-known journalists and broadcasters were also in on the "conspiracy." They chose not to disclose Mr. Ashe's illness because that is the way he wanted it. They respected his right to privacy, putting his personal feelings before the desire to break a major story -- a pretty unusual approach in a lot of newsrooms.

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In the end, it was a query from USA Today that prompted Mr. Ashe to call a press conference and tell his story last Wednesday in New York. Mr. Ashe said he probably acquired the virus from a blood transfusion after heart surgery in 1983. With his wife Jeanne beside him, and their 5-year-old daughter, Camera, very much in their thoughts, Mr. Ashe said that he tested positive for AIDS in September 1988.

The press conference was packed, a feeding frenzy, about 150 reporters and photographers in all. And Mr. Ashe went from there to the New York television studios, where he shared his thoughts on several national broadcasts. Everybody wanted him.

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But that had not been his first choice. In an ideal world -- presumably one without so many aggressive reporters and editors -- Mr. Ashe would have opted for secrecy and privacy.

Soon after testing positive for the virus, that is the way Mr. Ashe put it to Frank Deford, a close friend who happens to be one of the nation's top sportswriters. Mr. Ashe asked for secrecy. Mr. Deford gave his word. Months later, as editor of a then-new daily sports newspaper, The National, the pledge left Mr. Deford in a somewhat awkward position, sitting on a major story he had promised not to tell.

Mr. Deford, who in 1975 co-wrote a book with Mr. Ashe, says he never even considered breaking his promise of silence.

"This is one time we put aside a scoop which would have served no purpose whatsoever," said Mr. Deford, who now writes for Newsweek magazine. "Sometimes news just for the sake of news is not justifiable."

Mr. Deford was not alone in his judgment. Now there is plenty of debate about whether USA Today did the right thing by going after the story, or whether a few of the nation's journalistic elite did the right thing by ignoring it for so long.

John Feinstein, a former Washington Post reporter and best-selling author of sports books, including one on the professional tennis circuit, also said he had heard Mr. Ashe was sick but chose not to pursue it as a story. "Obviously, Arthur's not running around sleeping with people and infecting them," Mr. Feinstein said. "If he wants to keep it private, I think that's his right."

Thursday morning, NBC's Bryant Gumbel told his "Today" show audience that he too had known about Mr. Ashe's illness for quite some time. Ross Greenburg, executive producer of Home Box Office Sports, for which Mr. Ashe is a tennis analyst, told the New York Daily News he had known about the AIDS situation since the summer of 1989.

Mr. Ashe anticipated plenty of questions from people wondering why he had waited so long to go public, so he answered before being asked. "The answer is simple," he said. "Any admission of infection at that time would have seriously, permanently, and, my wife and I believed, unnecessarily infringed upon our family's right to privacy. Just as I am sure everyone in this room has some personal matter he or she would like to keep private, so did we. There was certainly no compelling medical or physical necessity to go public."

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Still, Mr. Ashe knew that this time would come. He did not know if he would live to see the moment. AIDS patients -- famous or not -- are never sure of such things. But he knew that sooner or later, someone would choose to take his story public.

Last November, when former Los Angeles Lakers basketball star Magic Johnson retired because of HIV infection, Mr. Ashe figured that someone was going to blow the whistle on him. With all the stories being written and broadcast about Mr. Johnson, surely someone was going to break the story on Mr. Ashe. But it didn't happen. Mr. Ashe was relieved. Temporarily.

Then there was a telephone call to the newspaper USA Today, and, as Mr. Ashe says, someone "ratted" on him. Mr. Ashe has no idea who would have made such a call, and nobody at the paper is saying. But there was a call.

"After several days of checking it out, USA Today decided to confront me with the rumors," Mr. Ashe said. "It put me in the unenviable position of having to lie if I wanted to protect our privacy. No one should have to make that choice."

In a prepared statement, written and printed on his home computer, Mr. Ashe underlined those words: "No one should have to make that choice." But now he had to make that choice.

Mr. Ashe chose the truth. He was able to delay the newspaper long enough to make the announcement himself. But without the newspaper's inquiry, there is no way he would have gone public.

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Gene Policinski, Managing Editor/Sports of USA Today, explained the paper's approach by writing: "There was no question that this was a significant news story. . . . It was news when Ashe had a heart attack years ago, and it would have been news if he had some other potentially fatal disease such as lung cancer or a brain tumor."

Donna Doherty, editor of Tennis Magazine, said that USA Today probably handled the story properly. "But it's a tough call," she stressed. "I know that some people in journalism have known about this but did not want to do anything with it . . . and I'm glad I wasn't a newspaper reporter with an editor telling me to find out the truth."

Several journalists drew comparisons to the way reporters have been prying for private information on presidential candidates. Who have they slept with? What have they smoked? All the badgering and gossip sometimes reaches the point that readers and listeners get angrier with the people asking the questions than those answering them.

"I did not know about Arthur's illness," said Bud Collins, who as a Boston Globe writer and NBC broadcaster is arguably the best-known tennis commentator in the country. "But even if I had, it was a story that should not have been broken. . . . That's the way I always felt about Martina Navratilova's lesbianism. I always knew, but I didn't want to break the story. Once someone else did, then I commented on it."

And so it is with Mr. Ashe. While some of the top journalists in the country knew about his illness and guarded his secret for years, that did not slow down anybody from running with the pack once Mr. Ashe decided to talk.

Jeffrey Marx is a free-lance writer who lives in Washington.


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