When ESPN named its courage award after the late Arthur Ashe, they could not have made a better choice. World class tennis champion, educator and advocate for the oppressed, Ashe personified grace and dignity, especially during his final days.
At the age of seven, Arthur picked up a racket for the first time and began playing tennis at the local park. He was determined to succeed at a sport in which blacks were widely discriminated against. Slender and unassuming, he hardly looked the part. His opponents teased him, calling him “Skinny,” and “Bones,” but the moment he took the court, he amazed them with lighting quick reflexes and brilliant serves and volleys. Ashe quickly became the star of all-black tennis tournaments, and soon advanced to larger ones. “But time and again,” writes biographer David Collins, “he faced closed doors: shut out of segregated restaurants, parks, and tennis courts; banned from many prestigious ‘white’ tournaments.”
Despite these obstacles, Ashe soared in the few prominent competitions he was allowed to play in, and quickly won national recognition. UCLA gave him a full scholarship, and he led his team to the NCAA tennis championship—winning the singles and double titles along the way.
In 1963, he became the first African-American to be recruited by the US Davis Cup Team. After being inducted into the Army in 1966, and under the tutelage of tennis legend Pancho Gonzalez, Ashe remained playing as an amateur, and shocked the world by winning the U.S. Open in 1968. Two years later, he won the Australian Open, and in 1975, he pulled off one of the greatest upsets in tennis history by defeating the reigning champion Jimmy Connors, who hadn’t lost a single set during the tournament up until that point.
The victory was especially sweet, since Arthur, at that very moment, was involved in a huge dispute with Connors, whom he had criticized for refusing to join the US Davis Cup team. Just to make sure Connors hadn’t forgotten, Ashe walked onto the Court that day with a warm-up jacket emblazoned with the letters “U.S.A.” Arthur Ashe, the great tennis champion, was also a great patriot.
But Ashe’s notion of patriotism wasn’t uncritical, much less jingoistic. It was forged and nuanced by two potent factors in American history and his personal life: racism and religion. Having experienced the sting of racism first-hand, Ashe felt a responsibility to fight it, at home and abroad. Whether it was speaking out for disadvantaged minorities, desperate Haitian refugees, or prisoners of conscience in South Africa, Ashe’s support was global. His civil rights work became so well-known that Nelson Mandela, upon being released from prison, said that one of the first people he wanted to meet and thank was the great American, Arthur Ashe.
But what gave Ashe his social conscience, and elevated him as a man, was something rarely recognized in tributes to him: his profound Christian faith.
Although Arthur had been raised a Christian, he had grown wary of Christianity, for reasons explained by television producer Bob Briner, his close Evangelical friend: “He felt that many of the people who called themselves Christians were the very same ones who kept him from playing in many of the events important to his playing career.”
Yet, it was precisely within the tennis world, contending with one of his greatest competitors, Stan Smith, that Ashe’s Christian beliefs were reawakened. As Briner relates, Smith had become “a solid believer in the Lord Jesus;” and as he travelled the world with his on-court rival, Arthur was “able to get an up-close and personal look at Stan’s faith. What he found was consistency. If Stan won, he was gracious, and if he lost he was just as gracious. If it was the middle Sunday at Wimbledon and all the other players were resting for the grueling second week, Stan was speaking in some London church.”
Ashe learned a great deal about life and faith from Smith, and those lessons were put into action during his greatest trials.
After a heart attack cut short Ashe’s storied career, he never complained, but instead expressed thanks for all the blessings he had received: “If I were to say, ‘God, why me?’ about the bad things, then I should have said, ‘God, why me?’ about the good things that happened in my life.”
When his heart ailment was followed by the AIDS diagnosis, it was only natural that he turned to his fellow believers. As Briner writes, describing how he and Smith learned of their friend’s illness:
He hoped that Stan and I would give him a crash course in the Scriptures, pray for him, and share our faith with him. . . . Arthur’s faith and understanding grew tremendously. His confidence in the future, in an eternal future, manifested itself in many ways. . . .Arthur had assured me of his trust in Christ.
The announcement that this year's Arthur Ashe Award will be going to Caitlyn Jenner has been criticized, but this fleeting controversy should not take away from Ashe’s exemplary life, or from what the award has traditionally stood for: bravery, excellence, grace—and, one might now add—inspiring faith.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.