Richard Lapchick

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Thursday, February 6
Updated: February 7, 4:50 PM ET
A legacy of change and hope

By Richard E. Lapchick
Special to

That day in Richmond, Va., stays with me even 10 years later. A rainbow of thousands of people gathered to pay tribute to Arthur Ashe in the most integrated scene I had ever witnessed. Now, even in a post-Sept. 11 era that prompts us to redefine our use of the word "hero" in sports, Arthur Ashe remains a giant. The people had come to Richmond from across the nation and around the world, knowing that they were saying farewell to a genuine hero.

Arthur Ashe
In 1975, Ashe became the first black man to win Wimbledon, one of his three Grand Slam titles.
For as dominating a player as he was on the tennis court, he was even more formidable as an agent of change off it. For all the accolades and trophies he earned with that big serve of his, he also is remembered for the battles he fought during his unrelenting service of community. For more than he will be remembered as a great athlete, he was known as a great humanitarian.

I first got to know Arthur Ashe as an opponent. It was in the early 1970s, and Ashe was competing in South Africa. He was there because he believed he could break down the structure of the apartheid government by proving that he belonged on the tennis court.

I had become the American leader of the coalition of more than 50 groups that had come together to boycott South African sport. Arthur Ashe was our most visible and striking opponent. He was a great African-American tennis player who maintained that the boycott was wrong, and instead believed that competing allowed him to stand as an example of the result of integration, which was his way to bring about change in apartheid South Africa.

We were holding our first protest against South African tennis players at the U.S. Open in 1977. Dick Schaap, the legendary sportscaster, came over to tell me that Arthur Ashe was going to address the small band of protestors that had gathered. I was apprehensive about what he might say. I worried that if he expressed his opposition, some demonstrators might change their mind and leave.

But much to my surprise, Arthur told the crowd that he had been wrong all those years. He didn't realize that until he tried to purchase tickets for some young Africans for a tennis match in South Africa and was told to use an "Africans only" counter. Arthur knew then the boycott was the only way to bring about change. That he chose to join the boycott gave us an enormous boost and allowed us to see his courage and conviction up close.

I had always thought his going to South Africa was based on principle and never doubted that he believed he was doing the right thing. I knew he was a man with such commitment and passion.

Ashe was arrested in 1992 protesting against U.S. treatment of Haitian refugees.
Arthur taught me the power of being able to say that you have been wrong, but you could always change direction. He was with us when we protested the South African Davis Cup Team one year later, a turning point in America's history of competing with South Africa in sports. Finally, the United States had joined the world in isolating South Africa and its oppressive government. But Arthur never stopped protesting injustice in America, South Africa, Haiti or anywhere else people were oppressed.

Recently, I was on "Seasons of Change," an ESPN roundtable discussion that explored the social changes that have affected the African-American athlete in the 40 years since Martin Luther King's March on Washington. Among those on the panel with me were former Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, NFL Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell, Tennessee Titans running back Eddie George and Michael Jordan Brand creator Howard White. Among the focus of the discussion was the question of whether athletes, especially African-American athletes, have a responsibility to speak out on social issues.

As so many bemoaned the inactivity of today's professional athletes, I could not get Arthur Ashe out of my mind. In he were still alive today, he would be speaking out on President Bush's assault on affirmative action, teaching younger athletes to first understand what it has done for women and people of color in our nation. You couldn't listen to Arthur and not think if he challenged your beliefs. The power of changing direction and changing your opinion was part of his life.

He would be very public about the Bush Commission on Athletic Opportunity's interest in softening the teeth of Title IX. He would not want to deny his daughter, Camera, the opportunity to be an athlete if that is what she chose to pursue in life. He would tell us that the Commission on Athletic Opportunity is, in fact, a commission designed to remove athletic opportunity from women under the guise of creating more chances for male student-athletes.

A product of a time when there were tennis courts on which he could not play, he would be up there explaining why Augusta National should not be allowed to exclude women from its club. Arthur knew that sport is such an important symbol in our nation and the world that holding the Master's at this private club would be unacceptable if it came at the exlusion of anyone.

I don't know if Arthur thought he could keep his battle with AIDS a private matter until the end, but he did not not have the chance to make such a decision when USA Today forced his hand by threatening to break the story. Arthur was simply Arthur, seizing the opportunity to help educate people that HIV and AIDS were not restricted to gays and intravenous drugs users. Always educating, always shedding light on the hard issues.

I believe there would be more athletes speaking out today if Arthur was still here to guide them, to urge them to stand up. I'll always remember how my opinion of John McEnroe changed from the one most people had of the star tennis player. It was because of Arthur Ashe.

McEnroe had just agreed to play tennis in Bophutatswana, a South African "homeland" that was used to mislead the world about the nature of apartheid. To play there, he was offered a virtually unheard of $1 million payday. Former U.S. Ambassador Franklin Williams and I met with McEnore's father, and Arthur met with John. Within 24 hours, John McEnroe became the first prominent white athlete to reject the apartheid government's gold.

I appeared on programs with Arthur for 15 years, learning lessons of life from my friend. I knew no person who better understood that all battles for human rights are fought on the singular plain than Arthur Ashe. If I ever became discouraged, I thought of his determination and courage to engage both global and personal battles of heroic proportions. I thought of him as a husband and father who missed his wife, Jeanne, and daughter Camera while he was so often on the road. He was a man unafraid to talk of the gentle love he had for his family.

One of the best days of my life was also a little bit sad. It was May 10, 1994, and I was a guest of Nelson Mandela at his inauguration in Pretoria, South Africa. It was a great day that showed that anything and everything is possible if we work to end oppression and racism. It was also a sad day because Arthur, who had worked so hard for this moment to happen, was not with us. I looked up to the bright African sky, nodding to Arthur because his life and his work had hastened the day that apartheid was smashed and democracy launched under President Mandela.

Athletes today should read about Arthur and realize that their voices could be amplified and their lives inspired by him.

I have been fortunate to receive some wonderful awards. The two I treasure most are the Arthur Ashe Voice of Conscience Award presented to me by Jeanne in 1997 and when I was in inducted into the Commonwealth Nations Sports Hall of Fame in 1999. In its 20th year, the Hall of Fame created an Humanitarian category and I was one of the first three inductees. The others were Nelson Mandela and Arthur Ashe.

Indeed, his legend and inspiration continue unabated.

Richard E. Lapchick is the Chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. The author of 10 books, Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.

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