AIDS Educators Eyeing Magic Johnson As Powerful Spokesman for Prevention
By Ellen Flax
The shocking disclosure by the basketball star Earvin (Magic) Johnson that he has tested positive for the virus that causes AIDS has created new opportunities for AIDS-prevention efforts, educators said last week.
Educators said they were pleased that Mr. Johnson, who has become a hero to millions of young people while leading the Los Angeles Lakers to five world titles, said he would serve as a spokesman against AIDS, and would target his message to youths.
"1 want them to understand that safe sex is the way to go," said Mr. Johnson as he told a worldwide audience on Nov. 7 that he was retiring from the sport because he had tested positive for the human immunodeficiency virus. He later said he contracted the virus through unprotected heterosexual intercourse.
The announcement, educators said, forced many schools to conduct impromptu AIDS-education lessons.
"I suspect that every health teacher in the district had to talk about AIDS the next day," said Sharon Sinclair, a teacher-adviser in the Los Angeles Unified School District's H.I.V./AIDS-prevention Office.
But in the long run, they said, Mr. Johnson, the very picture of fitness and vitality, may be uniquely suited to bring the message about AIDS to two critical audiences: inner-city youths and heterosexuals.
"He's someone we feel could be an effective spokesperson to teach children about the risk of H.I.V. infection," said Kim Bohen, a spokesman for New York City Schools Chancellor Joseph A. Fernandez, who has invited Mr. Johnson to take part in the district's AIDS-education efforts.
'Charisma' and 'Credibility'
New York City, however, will have to vie for a place on the superstar's schedule with the thousands of other groups that have asked him to make an appearance, endorse a program, or lend his support to an AIDS-prevention effort.
Richard Stark, a member of First Team Marketing, the firm that manages Mr. Johnson's career, said the office's telephones have "been ringing and ringing" with requests since Mr. Johnson's announcement. Many requests have come from schools and youth groups, he said.
Jim Williams, director of the National Education Association's Health Information Network, said the union is also likely to make a request. He said the N.E.A. is considering asking Mr. Johnson to speak at its convention next summer and then be part of a more comprehensive campaign. "He's got charisma, he's got credibility with the groups and populations that have to be reached," Mr. Williams said.
Another group that has sought his counsel is the National Commission on AIDS. President Bush invited Mr. Johnson to join the 15-member advisory panel, but he has not yet said whether he will accept, a White House spokesman said last week.
Converse Inc., the athletic-shoe maker whose products Mr. Johnson endorses, said it would back a $l-million public awareness campaign about AIDS featuring him and other basketball players. Proceeds from the campaign will go to the Magic Johnson Foundation, which will distribute funds to many organizations.
Mr. Johnson's announcement also sparked new discussion about whether school AIDS-education programs should emphasize abstinence or safe sex and whether schools should distribute condoms to students.
For example, at a press conference in Los Angeles last week four of the district's seven beard members urged the entire board to adopt the recommendations of a blue-ribbon committee that condoms be more available in schools and that all staff members receive more training about H.I.V. and AIDS. Mr. Johnson's situation underscores the need for such a program, several of the board members said.
The full board is expected to vote on the task force's report later this year.
Vice President Dan Quayle, in contrast, said he disagreed with Mr. Johnson's strategy of promoting safe sex. "If there is something that I could personally do to encourage young people, I would not say safe sex, I would talk about abstinence," he said.
In Boston, Mayor Raymond L. Flynn sparked controversy in some quarters last week when he said in a television interview that the basketball player's revelation did not alter his opposition to condom-distribution in schools. "I personally don't see how [condom distribution] is going to stop the spread of AIDS," he said.