Because of two recent acts — one of courage, the other of hate — the National Basketball Association has an historic opportunity to combat AIDS in the Black community.
Earlier this month, retired NBA player John Amaechi took a courageous step, unveiling in his memoir that he is a gay man. The announcement, a simple statement of Amaechi's truth, was sadly historic: It made him the first National Basketball Association player to publicly state he is not heterosexual. By standing up and telling the truth about who he is, Amaechi also stood up for a healthy Black America. He struck a blow against the stigma and shame that keeps too many in our community – gay, straight and anything in between – from talking openly about their sexuality and their sexual health.
Silence, as the old saw goes, equals death. And a world in which any part of our community can't speak honestly about his or her sexuality is one in which all of our sexual health is put in danger. With more than half of all new HIV infections occurring among African Americans, we can no longer afford sexual silences of any sort.
Most NBA players responded to Amaechi's statement with heartening affirmation, and he has characterized the response he's received in general as "overwhelmingly positive." That positive response is extremely important, given how desperately Black America now needs to come together to protect itself from the devastation of HIV/AIDS.
As Julian Bond, the chairman of the board of the NAACP, said in a recent interview, "Homophobia is one of the major obstacles to Black America coming to grips with this disease [AIDS] in the ways that we should." Last summer, the NAACP boldly positioned itself to be among the leaders in our community's new movement against this epidemic.
In July, an unprecedented coalition of Black leaders and organizations convened at the global AIDS conference in Toronto and pledged themselves to a "Marshall Plan" to end AIDS — and they counted striking down the deadly stigma surrounding sexuality among the top items on their to-do list.
Sadly, some in our community still haven't gotten the memo, and former Miami Heat star Tim Hardaway appears to be among those left out of the know. In a Valentine's Day radio appearance, he responded to a question about Amaechi's laudable honesty with his own shameful vitriol. "I hate gay people," Hardaway boasted. "I don't like to be around gay people. I am homophobic. I don't like it. It shouldn't be in the world or in the United States."
The tragedy of Hardaway's statement is that, at a time when many of our leaders are trying to mobilize our community to fight a deadly killer, his outburst drags us backward into a retrograde discussion.
I'm glad the NBA immediately condemned the tirade and banished Hardaway from its All-Star activities in Las Vegas. That swift action was enough to get the five-time All Star's attention, apparently, and Hardaway has since apologized for his remarks.
But the NBA has an opportunity and a responsibility to not only use this occasion to undue the damage done by Hardaway, but to join the growing movement to stop AIDS in Black America. It can sponsor free HIV testing at its games, for instance, or it can mobilize its star talent for public education campaigns. The league's potential to change the course of the epidemic is massive.
The AIDS epidemic in America is a story of a failure to lead. But Amaechi's courage and Hardaway's outburst has handed NBA Commissioner David Stern and NBA Players Association President Antonio Davis a chance to demonstrate the opposite: a willingness to lead on this issue, and to save lives. We call on them to do so.
Phill Wilson is CEO and founder of the Black AIDS Institute in Los Angeles.