On the playing field where HIV squares off against organized sports, there are many varsity guessing games: How many athletes are HIV positive? Should leagues require testing? Would disclosure ruin a career? Yet from the days when AIDS first entered pro and amateur arenas—dunking its way onto Magic Johnson’s basketball court and into Greg Louganis’ pool—athletic and medical authorities have agreed on this rule of play: The chances of transmitting HIV during competition are extremely slim. The Centers for Disease Control puts the odds of contracting the virus from athletic, blood-to-blood contact at one in 85 million. The American College of Sports Medicine considers the risk so negligible that it has chosen not to issue a policy statement on who should and shouldn’t be excluded from play based on their HIV status. “We thought it was pretty obvious,” cardiologist Paul Thompson, a former president of the group, told the Associated Press. “The risk was low.” This presumption, however, may itself be a dangerous contagion. It could explain the confusion—some say “ignorance,” still others “stigma”—surrounding the June 17 quarterfinal match of the prestigious Rockaway Rugby Sevens Tournament in Queens, New York. Dozens of published reports, most thoroughly the gay-focused sports website Outsports.com, detailed the off-field fracas over whether members of the Rock/B Fire team, many of whom are members of the New York City Fire Department, would agree to face off with the Gotham Knights (many of whom are gay). According to Outsports and other reports, the fire department squad—it’s not an official NYFD team and the department doesn’t sanction its behavior—refused to play the Knights when the Knights would not certify that all its members were HIV negative. Neither side would comment to POZ as the fallout mounted, but Knights player Eric Merfalen told Outsports that an opponent “came up and said something like, ‘I don’t mean to be a jerk, but . . .’ and then asked if we could all confirm that we were not HIV positive.”
With no instant replay tape, the ultimate truth may remain elusive. But these fears are hardly atypical. In November of 2005, POZ.com reported the case of Trevis Smith, a linebacker from Alabama who plays for the Roughriders football team in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. Smith was one of few openly HIV positive athletes active in professional sports. Team managers knew his status and let him tumble around on the turf, satisfied that he posed little threat to other players’ health (until he faced a charge of withholding his status from a sexual partner, which he has denied). Tony Mills of the Toronto Argonauts, who has faced Smith on the field, recently told the Toronto Star, “I don’t want to be the one who goes out and plays a sport that I love and comes home
Smith isn’t the only pro athlete who has faced HIV discrimination. Heavyweight boxing champ Tommy Morrison, who retired in 1996, after a physical revealed he was HIV positive, wants to return to the ring, but state licensing boards are squeamish. John Montano, chief of Arizona’s commission, asked in USA Today, “Is he contagious? That’s one of the things you would have to look at.” How many more doctors must
repeat, “No, actually, he’s not contagious,” remains a very open question.
Pro leagues, especially the National Basketball Association, are ramping up mentoring efforts to teach kids how HIV spreads via sex and IV drug use. This season, perhaps pro icons could take a quick time-out from tackling these transmission issues and simply risk stating the obvious.