20 Years Removed, How Would Magic Johnson’s Announcement of HIV Looked Today?

On November 7th, 1991, the sports and celebrity world alike came to a standstill when Earvin “Magic” Johnson publicly announced that he had contracted human immunodeficiency virus, more commonly known as HIV. “The announcement,” as it has come to be known as, was broadcasted internationally and is estimated to have had around 9 million viewers.

The virus at the time was spreading through various parts of the country, and little research had been done to understand how the disease was transmitted and affected those who contracted it. That’s why at the time of the announcement many were shocked to learn that a sports icon such as Magic Johnson could come down with such a mysterious virus.

Today, Johnson continues to lead a healthy life, and has been applauded for his efforts as a spokesperson for the illness. However, there is a bit more to uncover in this event. It is widely rumored within the sports world that Johnson’s announcement came long after his diagnosis.

So, how was Magic and his camp able to keep this under wraps for so long? How would he have fared in today’s climate where social media often reveals information regarding athletes before they have a chance to speak on it? What sort of long-term impact did Magic create by revealing to the world that he had a virus which was taboo to discuss among many? 

In 1991, HIV had begun to run rampant across the globe, with more than 10 million people contracting the virus, according to the CDC.

Within the United States, about one to two million people had reportedly been diagnosed with HIV. There was little information on how the virus was spread. Many outlets claimed that HIV was a “gay man’s” disease, believing it could only be found and contracted by men who engaged in homosexual activity.

Furthermore, many had strongly speculated that homeless people, who were heavy drug users, were more prone to coming down with the virus. (Research and experimental trials recently conducted have revealed that this is not the case.) Anyone can contract this virus, but this was not common knowledge back in the 80s and 90s.

The mystery and misinformation that surrounded this illness made it an uncomfortable topic to discuss in America at the time. Even President Ronald Reagan downplayed its danger throughout the 1980s.

Enter Magic Johnson. 

Magic was at the prime of his basketball career and celebrity career entering the 1990s. He had just come off of five National Basketball Association (NBA) championships throughout the 80s, being named the most valuable player in three of them. He was also a prominent fixture in the Los Angeles nightlife, appearing at nightclubs and talk shows regularly.

Magic had risen to a standing in society that few athletes before him had ever seen. When appearing in public, Magic was often mobbed by cameras trying to catch a glimpse of the superstar. He attracted plenty of people to him thanks to his charm and soft-spoken demeanor.

Women would write their phone numbers on whatever they could and “ask for an autograph” in order to grab his attention. By all accounts, Magic was extremely fond of women. His lifestyle facilitated this fondness he had for them confessing to numerous occasions of buying women courtside seats to attend his games, inviting them to go home with him after a night full of partying, and even flying them out on his vacations in locations such as Hawaii and the Bahamas.

He’s been referred to as a sex symbol by numerous publications and writings that described the life he lived. His infidelities have long been documented, as he had been together with his partner Earlitha Kelly since 1985. But this didn’t seem to matter to those around Magic, and those who idolized him.

The lifestyle he led allowed many people to envision him as an idol and someone to model himself as it relates to the way in which he carried himself. His public persona began to change when in August of 1991, a woman had written a letter to Magic claiming he had infected her with HIV.

During his famous announcement, Magic announced not only his diagnosis, but his immediate retirement from the National Basketball Association. Many were shocked to hear that a figure like Magic could have fallen to such a virus, but why should we care? He certainly wasn’t the first athlete to contract HIV, and would most certainly was not be the last. It is worth investigating how a situation like this would have played out in today’s landscape. It’s been reported that Magic knew of his diagnoses months before he reported it to the public.

When the 1991 NBA season first went underway, Magic missed multiple games to “illness”. Many spectators of the sport grew more and more curious as to how long Magic would sit courtside in a suit, and the severity of his illness. Little was thought of it at the time, but looking back, how did Magic keep this information within his circle of confidants?

“He certainly wasn’t the first athlete to contract HIV, and would most certainly was not be the last.”

Hakeem Smith

The magnitude of this letter cannot be ignored. This woman known as Jane Doe had knowledge of Magic’s diagnosis about two months prior to his announcement. It was not public information that Magic had contracted the virus which begs the question, how long did Magic know of his diagnosis?

Since the early 2000s the way in which we report on athletes of high status has changed. In today’s world of up to the minute news and ridiculously fast reporting, it is difficult to say that Magic’s diagnosis of HIV would not have hit international news soon after it was brought to his attention.

Public figures such as Magic Johnson in today’s society are at the mercy of reporting and the spread of information that relates to them. Legendary basketball star Kobe Bryant passed away in January of 2020 in a helicopter crash, and before his family could be informed of the accident, pictures of the wreck were posted all over the internet for the globe to see. It is hard to imagine Magic would not have fared the same fate.

Ray Rice, who was an NFL running back for the Baltimore Ravens, was arrested in February of 2014 for a domestic violence incident between him and his then-fiancée, and within days the popular celebrity gossip show TMZ had released a video of him punching his fiancée in the face, knocking her unconscious. If Magic Johnson was a basketball player of the same magnitude in our contemporary period, would he be subject to the same standards of reporting?

Outlets like TMZ, who pride themselves on reporting the latest news first most likely would not have spared Magic, and his diagnosis of HIV would have become public news within days or weeks. Magic would have become a slave to the moment. His status in society would require news reporters to divulge this information to the public due to the magnitude of the story. 

In today’s realm of sports where injury news and legal involvement regarding athletes is at the hands of the public seemingly as fast as it occurs, it’s amazing Magic’s situation was held away from media outlets for as long as it was. In our contemporary period, we have a few examples of athletes who have “fallen,” though not as graciously, from similar heights.

Former Pittsburgh Steelers player, Antonio Brown experienced a situation where his public persona was extremely damaged after a series of off-the-field events threatened his career. Former Heisman Trophy Winner, awarded to the best football player in college football, Johnny Manziel fell victim to the pleasures of celebrity status, missing practice after being drafted to the Cleveland Browns in 2014 to party in Las Vegas.

There may not be a perfect present-day example that captures the feelings and emotions that were accompanied by Magic’s announcement, the way in which his situation unfolded serves as an unrealistic precedent for the athletes that followed him.

Tiger Woods was prodded as a savior within the realm of professional golf, but was held to the torch of the public after details of his “12 mistresses” leaked to the public within days following a car crash he was involved in. Similar to Magic, Tiger was able to recover, but the depths he reached in regards to public scrutiny, Magic never saw. Not only was Magic’s public persona maintained, but the news of his diagnosis of a virus surrounded by such stigma at the time was not released to the public for months. One can suspect his news would have been realized to the public long before he had the chance to if his situation occurred in today’s media. Today, athletes are hardly given the privacy of being allowed to reveal incidents they have been involved with to the public.

Today, Magic has been extremely outspoken on the HIV epidemic, donating large sums of money to research efforts, and making appearances at HIV related events to raise awareness on the seriousness of the virus. But what would have occurred if he played in his prime in 2021? Would he have been subject to Twitter users calling him all sorts of names in the comments as they did for Antonio Brown and Johnny Manziel? Would talk shows slander his name for admittedly being unfaithful and hiding this news from the world as they did Tiger Woods?

In short, we can conclude this to be the case. His name — his aura — was too large to keep something like this under wraps. Privacy is not something that seems to be as protected as it was in his time. Today, doctors have been paid off to release secret information regarding their athlete patients so that news outlets can be the first ones to report on the story.

Magic’s “fall” from grace seemed to be a bit more of a stumble that he swiftly recovered from in 1991, but had this occurred in 2021, his fall from grace may have seen him land on his face. 

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