Researchers have determined the chances of an HIV-positive athlete infecting someone during competition are too remote to even quantify. Yet, in many ways, the anxiety surrounding AIDS can be just as elusive to measure.
So when it is revealed boxer Tommy Morrison has tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, the memory beckons scenes from a bloody bout with Lennox Lewis. When basketball player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf discovers blood on his arm _ someone else's blood _ eyes are involuntarily drawn toward a nearby Magic Johnson.
"Yeah, you wonder," Abdul-Rauf would say later, after it was discovered the blood was from a cut on the elbow of Denver teammate Dikembe Mutombo. "You can't help but wonder. You wonder, hoping you're not the one it happens to, if it happens."
If it happens.
More than a dozen years after the discovery of AIDS, there are no documented cases of transmission during athletic competition. Recent studies indicate the odds of transmission are infinitesimally low, even in contact sports.
Boxing, with its purposeful blood-letting, is the only sport that seems to create split views among AIDS experts.
Nonetheless, Morrison's revelation and Johnson's return to the Los Angeles Lakers (he plays in Orlando tonight) have led to increased speculation over the possible risk. Prior to Morrison's disclosure in February, seven states required mandatory AIDS tests for boxers. In the two-week frenzy that followed, four more states passed AIDS tests requirements.
"There will always be risk; there are risks everywhere, but it needs to be kept in perspective," said Tim Horn, of the AIDS/HIV Treatment Directory in New York. "The bottom line is HIV is a very difficult virus to transmit. I can understand if people are wary of it, but most of their fears are unfounded."
The HIV virus is transmitted in three basic ways: through intimate sexual contact; through blood inoculation, or injection; from an infected mother to her fetus.
Cases of transmission through blood splatter or open wounds, which is the concern in sports, are exceedingly rare.
The mere contact of tainted blood with another person's skin poses no discernible risk. Even when HIV-positive blood comes in contact with another person's open wound, it rarely leads to transmission. The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta studied thousands of such cases and determined the risk of infection is 3 out of 1,000.
Some of those cases involved large amounts of blood in a concentrated setting. It is unlikely, researchers say, that athletes would encounter situations even that risky.
"The nature of wounds is for blood to flow out, not to flow in. Usually it would require some force for it to traverse from an infected person to someone else," said the CDC's Dr. Peter Drotman, who participated in a World Health Organization's study of the risk of AIDS transmission through sports.
"The requirement for this theoretical transmission taking place in sports is almost certainly less than the 3 in 1,000, and probably far less than that."
To break it down:
If a competitor with an open wound came in contact with an HIV-positive athlete who is bleeding, the odds of transmission would be less than 0.3 percent, according to these studies.
"The risk is a lot less than most people would think," Drotman said. "But I guess it depends on the individual. Maybe that risk is still too high for some people."
No one ever said fear was rational. Risks were just as low for HIV transmission in basketball when Johnson attempted a comeback three years ago, yet he never made it out of training camp.
Johnson was moved to give up his return when several NBA players _ most notably Utah's Karl Malone _ expressed concern about being on the same court. Three years later, Malone was in Johnson's corner. He also was on Johnson's court in the third game of his latest comeback in early February.
"Three years ago, we didn't have all of the information we have now. We have seminars every year now and you realize the risk just isn't there," said Orlando Magic center Jon Koncak. "I have a better chance of getting hit by a Brinks truck."
Not everyone is as assured as Koncak. At least two NBA players talked publicly about their misgivings over Johnson's return and some have suggested that others are fearful of speaking out.
Sports leagues also have given a nod toward the risk by introducing common-sense edicts regarding sanitation. The NCAA, the NBA and the NHL all have rules requiring bleeding athletes to be removed from games until the blood flow has been stopped, although the NHL seems far less stringent with enforcement.
Trainers are required to wear gloves when treating even the most minor of wounds. NBA teams literally go through hundreds of towels a night because every time a player uses one to wipe his brow, it immediately lands in a laundry bag.
"We're all cognizant of what's out there. There's been a lot more awareness over the past few years," said Buccaneers trainer Chris Smith. "I don't think any of us are real worried about it, but we all want to work in a safe environment. You never know."
While the NFL does not have rules regarding players bleeding during games, football is considered to have an even lower risk than other contact sports. In a study released last year by the World Health Organization, it was estimated the odds of an on-field infection were 1 in 85-million plays.
The issue has not been as hotly debated in the NFL or NHL because no active players have been identified as HIV-positive.
CDC research indicates, however, that it is unlikely for either league to be exempt. According to the center's statistics, there is a probability that a handful of current NFL, NHL and NBA players are infected.
That thought has occurred to more than one athlete who has found himself stained with another's blood.
"I've had other people's blood on me a number of times. I've broken a few noses and I've bled on other people myself," said Lightning defenseman Rudy Poeschek. "There's definitely blood flying around out there. But at the time, I'm more concerned about winning the fight."
Even while physicians and researchers downplay the possibility of infection in sports, they concede common-sense safety measures should be taken. In boxing, common sense does not always apply.
When a basketball player is bleeding, the game is stopped. When a boxer bleeds, the crowd cries for more.
"Boxing is the one place where you have a problem. You can't stop a boxing match when there's a cut," said Dr. Lewis Schrager, an AIDS researcher at the National Institute of Health. "To me, as an HIV physician, it would make sense if a person is HIV-infected that they should not be boxing any longer."
Boxing is the one sport that AIDS experts are divided on. While most agree it potentially poses a greater risk, not everybody in the medical community say the hazard is sufficient to require mandatory HIV testing for boxers.
Boxing commissions in a half-dozen states have passed HIV testing requirements in the past two months, but the Florida State Athletic Commission declined to follow suit.
Executive director Don Hazelton said medical evidence and the lack of any known cases of transmission in boxing led to the commission's decision to forgo tests. Florida, however, will honor suspensions from other states.
So if Morrison, for instance, is suspended in Nevada for failing an AIDS test, he would not be permitted to box in Florida.
"Most of what we're seeing here is knee-jerk reactions to the Morrison thing and there are no concrete facts to back it up," Hazelton said . "A few years ago, you wouldn't go to the gym because you were afraid of the sweat on the equipment. And what happened to that farce? There is a golden opportunity to educate, and instead we're inflaming things."
Hazelton contends the fear surrounding boxing today will be non-existent in three years, much like the process the NBA went through with Magic Johnson.
Still, experts say, it is wrong to dismiss any anxieties athletes or others in the sports world are feeling.
"You can understand their fears, people have always been afraid of diseases that can be caught," said Schrager of the National Institute of Health. "What you need to do is understand people's fears. When you're dealing with a lack of information and a fatal disease, you need to educate.
"The fear may be irrational, but that does not mean it isn't real."