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).
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. …