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HIV & SPORTS: What Have We Learned? | SPECIAL REPORT

Does Disease Win With Morrison?

Overview: Heavyweight shows how far view of illness has come in last five years, and maybe how far there is to go.

November 03, 1996|STEVE SPRINGER and SONNI EFRON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Almost five years to the day that Magic Johnson stunned the nation by announcing that he was retiring from the Lakers because he had tested HIV-positive, an HIV-positive boxer stepped into a ring in Tokyo and knocked out his opponent in less than two minutes.

Left to be decided now is whether Tommy Morrison's victory over Marcus Rhode is also a triumph for the doctors and researchers who have made great strides in battling the disease and educating the public about it since Johnson's announcement on Nov. 7, 1991.

Certainly, Morrison's return proves how much the attitudes about the illness have changed in five years. When Johnson retired, the only questions centered on whether he would live, not whether he would compete again.

But effective new drugs have prolonged and improved the lives of many HIV and AIDS sufferers and the number of people in the United States who died from complications of AIDS in 1995 was the lowest since 1990.

Fears that the disease would spread through the athletic community proved unfounded. Only nine former or current professional athletes, including Morrison, have announced that they had contracted HIV or AIDS over the last five years, although others could be suffering in silence.

Five sports figures are known to have died from the disease since Johnson's announcement, the most prominent being former Wimbledon and U.S. Open tennis champion Arthur Ashe, who died Feb. 6, 1993, at 49 after contracting the disease in 1983 during heart surgery.

Into this improved scenario stepped Morrison, who announced that he was HIV positive in February, retired briefly, then returned to the ring to raise money by donating his purses to his K.O. AIDS Foundation, which helps children with AIDS.

Johnson was among the first to oppose the move, saying last week that Morrison threatens "all the good work" of the last five years by risking infecting an opponent or a spectator during a bout.

Said Dr. Jeffrey Laurence, director of the AIDS laboratory at New York Hospital, of the Morrison fight: "This is a risk we don't need to take."

After winning Sunday, Morrison said his "sole motivation for having the fight at all was to fund the K.O. AIDS Foundation. . . . I miss the competition but I don't miss boxing that much. My style is I get beat up a lot and it's not fun."

The "good work" Johnson referred to includes professional leagues adopting safety precautions for dealing with bleeding athletes. And a more educated public is now aware of the improbability of the virus being transmitted through athletic competition.

"I think people are more aware of the whole concept," Laurence said. "We don't hear anything like the numbers of complaints or fears we heard expressed five years ago."

Johnson, 37, allayed many of those fears when he returned to play for the Lakers last season. Perhaps, most important, he has shown no signs of deterioration.

"What we in the NBA, the media and people all over the world have learned in the last five years is monumental," said Terry Lyons, an NBA vice president. "And Magic Johnson is the reason, hands down. He put the news about the virus on the front page all over the world. He probably saved a lot of lives, when you think about it. Until then, the medical community had been 10 years ahead of the rest of us in terms of knowledge. . . . Magic brought the two sides together."

Still, Laurence said, few athletes are ready to acknowledge they have the disease. Acquired immune deficiency syndrome is a progressive weakening of the immune system, which makes a person vulnerable to life-threatening infections and is caused by infection with human immunodeficiency virus.

"You don't have people coming out, saying, 'I'm an athlete. I have HIV,' " Laurence said. "And they must be out there based on the statistics."

Statistics for athletes are difficult to come by. Only boxers are required to be tested for HIV. The Nevada State Athletic Commission has tested 2,500 boxers since 1988 and only two have been HIV-positive, Morrison and a fighter commission officials cannot legally identify. A boxer is known to have tested positive in Florida.

"Considering all the fighters there are," said Marc Ratner, executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, "the number testing positive is minuscule."

*

For a landmark moment in sports medicine, Morrison's bout was at best anticlimactic. The Tokyo Bay N.K. Hall near Disneyland was about 90% empty and tickets, which ranged in price from $88 and $850, were being sold outside by scalpers for half that.

The fight was over in one minute 38 seconds as Morrison dispatched Rhode, an unknown from St. Joseph, Mo., with a 15-2 record, by landing three solid punches. Special rules to guard against Morrison's blood contaminating anyone were not needed as Rhode never landed a punch of consequence. Referee Frank Garza, who had considered wearing goggles but didn't, had no need for the latex gloves he wore.

Reactions at ringside were mixed.

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