Keeping the Ashe Legacy Relevant

Keeping the Ashe Legacy Relevant
By Ronald Roach

Although tennis is regarded as an elite sport, the success that came to Arthur Ashe Jr. during and after his tennis career helped make him a figure whose impact reached far beyond the narrow confines of the tennis world. Among his exploits, Ashe is the first and only Black man to win the U.S. Open, Wimbledon and Australian Open tennis titles, besides his social activism and dedicated attention to academic achievement that made him the rare all-rounded individual in American sports.

This past February, the 10th anniversary of his death triggered an outpouring of tributes in the news media and by a few sports organizations. Ashe, who was 49 years old when he succumbed to an AIDS-related illness on Feb. 6, 1993, is now celebrated as much for his social activism and dedication to academic achievement as for his accomplishments on the tennis court. Scholars and sports experts say Ashe’s legacy makes him a unique figure in modern sports and one that will be a standard for others for a long time to come.

“I think Ashe is the model of the student-athlete that we need today. Ashe carved out his own place,” says Dr. Earl Smith, the chairman of the sociology department at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

“He had a quiet diplomacy, and a quiet activism,” says Dr. Jeffrey Sammons, a history professor at New York University who has written extensively on sports in American society.

At the same time, there’s concern that keeping Ashe’s legacy relevant to younger people, especially among Blacks, may not appear to be the slam dunk that it should be, according to some. To the extent that student-athletes put athletics over academics in middle school, high school and college, Ashe might appear to be a remote and forbidding figure. And, unlike the period of the 1960s and 1970s, sports and social activism remain the uneasy mix they had been for much of 20th-century American history.

“In some ways, he may be more important today than he was 10 years ago,” Smith says.

Experts say a hard-nosed vigilance is required on the part of organizations and families to keep the Ashe legacy in front of young people. Since his death, only a modest presence of public memorials and the use of his name for awards, philanthropic work and programs have been established. The best known of these is the naming of the tennis center as Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York City where the U.S. Open is played. A bronze statue of Ashe with two books in his right hand raised higher than the tennis racket in his left as he speaks to children, was erected amidst controversy in his hometown of Richmond, Va. in 1996 (see cover photo).

Character Counts

There’s long been an expectation in American sports that athletes demonstrate good character and conduct themselves as model citizens, according to experts. Nevertheless, the integration of professional baseball by Jackie Robinson showed that sports could lead the way for momentous social change in American life. And amidst the social and political turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s, it fell to individuals, such as Ashe and Muhammad Ali, to prove that athletes could take controversial positions and urge Americans to follow their conscience on issues.

“(Ashe) used his ability on the court to gain attention to important issues,” says Peter Roby, the director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society.

Observers point out that Ashe’s status as the first Black male professional tennis player to integrate the elite ranks of the sport put him in a position not unlike the one that accompanied Robinson as the man who integrated major league baseball. And in that role as the first Black man to play tennis at professional levels, Ashe is said to have excelled at demonstrating great character and dignity.

“I don’t remember another athlete like him who was as humble, unassuming, gracious and incredibly restrained. There’s great dignity in him,” Sammons says.

For Wake Forest’s Smith, the example that Ashe set in demonstrating great character represents a far cry from what is tolerated and expected of athletes by fans in today’s sports world.

“Once you get to the center stage, there’s an appropriate mode of behavior. I think we expect something from our sports figures,” Smith says. “In that respect, Ashe has really set a high standard.”

Spencer Overton, a law professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., says Ashe’s success as a tennis player helped expand the social space around sports, such as golf and tennis, which have traditionally attracted low numbers of Blacks. A former high school and college golfer, Overton says Ashe’s exploits on the tennis court inspired him as a youth growing up in Southfield, Mich.

“I didn’t play tennis, but Ashe inspired me when I pursued golf,” he says.

Overton notes that Ashe, who grew up in segregated Richmond, represented the best of the Black middle-class tradition. Instead of the snobby, self-absorbed and materialistic stereotype associated with both the historic and contemporary Black middle class, Ashe emerged as a socially conscious, politically aware and courageous Black man during a time when playing tennis was least seen as an authentic activity for an African American.

“Ashe showed that you could play tennis or be on the golf team, and still be Black,” Overton says.

Getting Politicized

On the issue of apartheid and South Africa for which he is well remembered, Ashe initially took what many argued was the wrong approach in confronting the then-racist apartheid regime in that country. When others urged him to boycott tournaments and refrain from visiting South Africa, Ashe instead played there and tried to open up tennis opportunities for Blacks. Later, Ashe adopted the strategy of disengagement, which meant isolating the country with boycotts.

“Ashe evolved on South Africa, and he became an effective critic of apartheid,” Sammons says.

During the 1980s, following his retirement from tennis competition due to heart disease, Ashe continued to speak out, both on political causes and the importance of academic preparation.

After it became known that Ashe contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion during heart surgery, instead of withdrawing from public life, he became a leader in the fight against the disease. He attracted considerable attention for saying that race posed a greater burden on his life than AIDS reflecting his upbringing in the segregated South and having risen to the top of a White-dominated world of tennis.

Wake Forest’s Smith says Ashe, a graduate of UCLA, proved himself a highly capable scholar by writing the three-volume series, A Hard Road To Glory: A History of the African American Athlete.

Making The Legacy Real

If Ashe were alive today, he would despair at the virtual whitewash that continues to exist in the ranks of collegiate and professional tennis, according to NYU’s Sammons.

For his part, Ashe co-founded the National Junior Tennis League in 1969 to teach inner-city kids to master tennis and to encourage them educationally. In 2002, the program, now run by the United States Tennis Association, served nearly 200,000 children. Even though he worked hard to bring tennis to American inner cities, success by Blacks in college and professional tennis appears almost as remote now as it was in Ashe’s day, experts say.

“The paucity of young Blacks represented in the tennis world would trouble Ashe,” Sammons says. “I see Venus and Serena [Williams] as novelties. You have a few that make it but not in a sustained way.”

Sammons believes the familiarity of Ashe to Americans, especially Black Americans, is far below what it could be. “Where’s the movie on Arthur Ashe? Where’s the documentary on his life?” he asks.

Roby, of the Center for the Study of Sports in Society, says he’s confident that Ashe’s legacy will continue to grow and inspire young people. The mission of the center is to seek the betterment of society through sports, according to the organization. The center was established in part to build upon the good works of socially conscious athletes, such as Ashe, Bill Russell and Muhammad Ali. Ashe’s insistence on academic achievement by athletes and non-athletes represents a great deal of the idealism for which the center stands, Roby explains.

“His legacy is a very powerful reminder to us about what our mission is. I don’t think people are going to forget Arthur Ashe,” Roby says.



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