November 7, 1991: Remembering the Day Magic Johnson Made HIV Real

Earvin “Magic” Johnson did not invent HIV awareness. If Gaetan Dugas and Rock Hudson and the Ronald Reagan administration’s blatant failures and Ryan White and Freddie Mercury and MTV hadn’t made you HIV/AIDS-aware by November 7, 1991, when Magic announced to the world that he had contracted the virus, you either had your head in a hole or you possessed extraordinary powers of “that only happens to other people.”

Ed. note: This article originally appeared on November 7, 2016.

What made Magic Johnson special wasn’t that some celebrity got HIV. What made Magic Johnson special was that he was a world-class athlete, in the heart of his prime, who got HIV from heterosexual sexual intercourse. No homosexuality, no intravenous drug use, no back-alley sex worker in a gutter, just a rich man having sex with a woman from among any of the women in all of America from whom a man of Magic Johnson’s stature could have chosen with whom to have sex.

I was 14 years old, a suburban white kid in possibly the whitest of all of Boston’s suburbs, Wakefield, Massachusetts, a freshman in high school, fully pubescent and enamored of the girls in the full blossom of youth (and, 25 years later, as many of my friends have daughters that same age today, highly amused by how what looks like womanhood to a boy looks so comically childish to a grizzled, middle-aged man. These days, women in their twenties look like kids to me.)

And, thanks to Magic Johnson, 14-year-old me was officially scared out of his wits.

See, up to that point, lack of HIV education hadn’t really affected my perception of the world. When my bigoted uncle said “don’t be gay or you’ll get the AIDS”, I was like “OK, Unc, I just want to play baseball with the boys, not screw them in the locker room.” And when the DARE types said “don’t share needles or use intravenous drugs or you’ll get the AIDS”, I was like “OK, I’m scared to death of needles, I’ll stick to drugs you can smoke or pop in pill form.” (my sobriety tale is a story for another slow news day.)

But “don’t go all the way with girls or you’ll get the AIDS”? That one set me dead to rights.

We forget just how much Magic set the world on fire with his announcement. Besides the obvious implications for, say, Portland Trail Blazers fans or Michael Jordan, that is. When Magic became the first point-to-this case for more progressive-minded school committees (even those in conservative-by-Massachusetts-standards Catholic strongholds like Wakefield), parents started to worry for real about making sure their kids weren’t at risk.

In the schoolyard at Wakefield High, “condom or a coffin” was practically a mantra, and the nice upshot of this wasn’t just that STD rates went down, it’s that teen pregnancy rates went down as well; looking back, I can count on one hand the number of girls I knew who got pregnant out of an incoming class of nearly 250 freshmen; over 90 percent of that class graduated thanks in very large part to that fact.

Sure, there was a lot of “don’t have sex before you’re married or Jesus will hate you”, but kids never listen to adults. They damn sure listen to celebrities, and even in Greater Boston, they listened to Magic Johnson.

Sure, it got a little ridiculous on television and in popular culture more generally; it seemed like every show on TV tried to shoehorn in a character who either got HIV or had a scare (Beverly Hills, 90210, looking very squarely at you especially), but the point was made.

Besides, there are still ripple effects. We take for granted that when a player gets cut, he’s not allowed back into the game until the bleeding has stopped. Well, guess who that rule was made for? Infection control more generally in the NBA and in other sports owes a massive debt of gratitude to Magic Johnson for being the focal point around which the medical community could instill best practices into sports.

The teen pregnancy rate in the United States peaked in 1991; it has been in steady decline ever since. Did teenagers stop having sex? Of course not! It is very simply because what started as an HIV prevention measure—the widespread distribution of condoms and instruction in their use—just happens to be a boffo way of keeping a young girl from finding herself in the family way before she’s ready.

Sure, NBA basketball itself took a hit (the 1991 season was the last in which a fast pace combined with a high level of efficiency; Michael Jordan’s presence may have covered it up, but the Dark Age of the NBA began with Johnson’s infection.)

But here we are, 25 years later. Magic Johnson is alive and well, saved and sustained by the invention of HAART in 1997. The disease itself is in retreat, and awareness of sexually transmitted infections more generally has its root in the events of one columnist and site editor’s freshman year of high school and the announcement that turned it all upside down. Recently, according to the Centers for Disease Control, for the first time in the history of the epidemic, more HIV-positive people died from something else before the virus could get them than died from AIDS-related complications.

It’s true what they say about silver linings, I guess. Live long and prosper, Magic.