Attacking Magic Johnson wasn't enough. No, Donald Sterling had to go and demonize everyone with HIV and AIDS, perpetuating the stigma that activists, doctors, policymakers – heck, anyone with a heart – have been trying to erase since Johnson put a familiar face on the disease more than 20 years ago.
"I hope this doesn't set us back," Johnson told CNN's Anderson Cooper on Tuesday, responding to Sterling's rant a day earlier on the network. "The stigma is still there. We know that. We've been fighting it for years."
That's the worst part about this latest fiasco involving the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. Most people won't take Sterling or his vitriol seriously, knowing he's a bitter and hate-filled man. That was clear to anyone watching the two interviews.
While Sterling rambled and whined, Johnson was composed and gracious. He didn't attack Sterling personally or take cheap shots. "I just feel sorry for him," Johnson said. "I really do. It's sad."
But the fact Sterling's views even have to be addressed give them a degree of legitimacy they don't deserve.
"I felt heartsick. I felt like this man singlehandedly attempted to dismantle the progress we've made," said Phill Wilson, who was AIDS director for Los Angeles when Johnson announced in November 1991 that he was HIV positive.
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That day, the switchboard at Wilson's office shut down because it couldn't handle all the calls coming in. The fear and shame surrounding HIV and AIDS was so great back then that the diseases were talked about in whispers and hushed tones, if they were talked about at all.
Now here was one of the country's most popular athletes announcing that he had the dreaded disease.
"His disclosure alone, I would say, saved tens of thousands of lives," said Wilson, now the president and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute. "For the first time, we could have a different conversation in black communities. It allowed us to have an honest conversation, and it allowed us to get people into treatment."
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With his high profile and frank talk, Johnson brought HIV and AIDS into the mainstream.
Understanding of HIV and AIDS is light years ahead of what it was 23 years ago, and so is treatment. There may not be a cure yet. But as Johnson so vibrantly illustrates, the diseases no longer mean a death sentence, either.
Yet Sterling's attack shows how much work remains. According to a 2012 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-profit organization that focuses on national health issues, 32% of respondents said they believed it was someone's own fault for getting AIDS.
That's not much of a drop from a decade ago, when the response was 40%.
"Stigma serves the purpose of dividing society into the 'good' people and the 'bad' people -- those deserving of support and love and those who are not," Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, said in a statement.
"In particular, stigma against people who are HIV-positive is intended to make them feel as if their disease is their fault and they are not worthy of acceptance and support," Weinstein said. "Most of all, it keeps them in the shadows because they are embarrassed to tell their story for fear of being judged or excluded."
Johnson may not be perfect, but he's devoted the second act of his career to trying to build people up. His foundation has provided HIV/AIDS testing for nearly 40,000 people, and awarded millions in grants. He's given millions more for college scholarships, with 85% of the recipients graduating within six years.
His community centers have provided educational and vocational training for more than 250,000 people around the country. His business ventures have created thousands of jobs, most in low-income, urban areas.
Yet that's not enough for Sterling, who apparently has trouble with Johnson and anyone else with HIV or AIDS.
"Is that someone we want to respect and tell our kids about?" Sterling said. "I think he should be ashamed of himself."
No, Mr. Sterling, a disease is nothing to be ashamed of. But ignorance fueled by hatred and fear are.
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