If the athletic record were our only method of judging Arthur Ashe’s impact on U.S. history and culture, it would be pretty impressive.
His life, however, was much more than that.
Ashe won three Grand Slam tennis titles — Wimbledon, U.S. Open, Australian Open — and was the first African-American to capture each. He was the first black man to be named to the U.S. Davis Cup team and reached the second spot in the ATP computer rankings in 1976.
But Ashe was so much more than a trailblazing athlete, and his legacy goes far beyond the courts. He crusaded against apartheid in South Africa and the cruel treatment of Haitian refugees. His efforts raised millions for the United Negro College Fund and for inner-city tennis programs. Ashe established the African-American Athletic Association. As his friend, former Atlanta mayor and United Nations ambassador Andrew Young said, “He took the burden of race and wore it as a cloak of dignity.”
Ashe died in 1993 of AIDS-related pneumonia after contracting HIV from a blood transfusion during heart surgery. Though his life ended too early, Ashe’s impact on society was enormous and is celebrated below by athletes who remember his great influence.
Andrew McCutchen, outfielder, Pittsburgh Pirates: Arthur Ashe was a pioneer in athletics for African-Americans, breaking down barriers by being the first African-American to win a singles title in a Grand Slam. His accomplishments led to a great level of acceptability for African-American athletes throughout the entire sports world. He also persevered off the tennis court, battling HIV and AIDS, while using his platform to help toward treatment and cures for the deadly disease.
Ozzie Newsome, GM, Baltimore Ravens; Hall of Fame tight end, Cleveland Browns: Arthur Ashe was a champion both on and off the tennis court. He inspired a generation of athletes who otherwise would not have tried tennis to get on the courts. He used the notoriety he gained in tennis to improve the world, especially in education and toleration. His dignity was evident throughout his life, including handling a debilitating illness until he passed. While I did not know him, you could see he was a man of tremendous character, courage, intelligence and a role model for many of us.
Adam Jones, outfielder, Baltimore Orioles: His career as a tennis player speaks for itself. I think he is the greatest African-American tennis player that ever lived. But what sticks out to me is how much he did for others, when he could have done nothing. Through no fault of his own, he acquired a horrible disease, but instead of doing nothing, he raised awareness for HIV and AIDS research and started foundations that would carry on his legacy long after he had passed. To me, what he did after his tennis career is more important than what he did during it, and we should all strive to make the kind of impact Mr. Ashe did.
Tyrone Wheatley, coach, Buffalo Bills; running back, New York Giants and Oakland Raiders: Arthur Ashe picked up where Althea Gibson left off but did not settle for just breaking down barriers. He took it to another level. He wanted South Africa banned from the tennis federation. A lot of athletes who were at the peaks of their careers did not want to make trouble. They just wanted to collect their money. Arthur Ashe said, “This is who I am, and I am going to bring to light what’s going on.” His accomplishments for civil rights were not publicized, but he did a lot. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in team sports, but tennis wasn’t trying to include black athletes. It was trying to keep things the way they were. When you think about the strength it took every day to go through that, it did more than what he did publicly. I don’t know if I would have had the mental toughness to do that.
Mike Singletary, Hall of Fame linebacker, Chicago Bears: I think Arthur Ashe was before his time. He allowed a lot of African-American athletes and people of color to get interested in a sport that was very non-traditional for them. To bring the class that he brought and to play the way he played and to overcome the things he overcame in a sport that was not traditional for African-Americans speaks volumes about him. I’m very proud of what he was able to accomplish and what he was able to do.
Isiah Thomas, Hall of Fame point guard, Detroit Pistons: Arthur Ashe impacted America on the tennis court with his groundbreaking championship play. He not only shattered racial barriers with his play, but he inspired us with his dignity and grace – sometimes against amazing odds. He made us better and bigger people because of the way he handled the racial prejudices and social injustices he faced. He was often quoted as saying, “My potential is more than can be expressed within the bounds of my race or ethnic identity.” Today, we salute his memory. I thank him for not only opening doors to a level playing field in tennis and sports but for using his celebrity status to promote a more educated and just society.
Tom Jackson, ESPN analyst, linebacker Denver Broncos: Arthur Ashe was one of the greatest athletes ever, not only for what he did on the court, but off the court as well. The courage and class he showed when he was HIV positive, and the stigma attached to it back then, we should all aspire to be so courageous.
Keyshawn Johnson, ESPN analyst, wide receiver, New York Jets, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dallas Cowboys, Carolina Panthers: Arthur Ashe is somebody who achieved greatness against major odds. He showed me and many young people like me who grew up in the inner city, that with courage and perseverance, you can succeed in any sport or career you choose.
—by Michael Bradley
Main Photo Credit: Nationaal Archief Fotocollectie Anefo Item number 927-7839