How Black athletes shaped 150 years of US politics

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The central place of sports in American life lends immense influence to athletes to shift the culture of the country—and for more than 150 years, Black athletes have done just that. Few scholars are as attuned to the intricacies of this history as renowned sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards. From his role in shaping the events of the 1968 Olympics to the politics of Colin Kaepernick, Edwards is just as much a participant in this history as a student and teacher of it. Now 80 years old, Dr. Harry Edwards joins Edge of Sports as he embarks on his “Last Lectures,” a final project to close his long career as a public intellectual.

Dr. Harry Edwards
 is a renowned sociologist whose work examines the relationship between race, sports, and politics. He is the author of The Revolt of the Black Athlete.

Studio Production: David Hebden, Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: Taylor Hebden
Opening Sequence: Cameron Granadino
Music by: Eze Jackson & Carlos Guillen


The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.

Dave Zirin:

Tonight on Edge of Sports. I can’t believe it. We’re talking to famed sports sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards. We’re talking about somebody who influenced the 1968 Olympics and the politics of Colin Kaepernick. He’s been in this game over 50 years. Can’t wait to talk to him, Dr. Harry Edwards.

Welcome to Edge of Sports, the TV show. I’m Dave Zirin. This week an icon joins the program and I do not use that word lightly. We have civil rights activist and sports sociology pioneer, author of the seminal book, Revolt Of the Black Athlete, Dr. Harry Edwards.

In Dr. Edwards, we are talking about someone who is an advisor and organizer of figures ranging from to Smith and John Carlos and the lead up to the 1968 Olympics to 50 years later, Colin Kaepernick. It’s a remarkable, legendary stretch as the preeminent public intellectual of the sports world.

Now, Dr. Edwards is actually why we have no sports scholar on this week because we have Dr. Harry Edwards and that’s enough sports scholarship over a lifetime to fill a library. So, let’s bring him on now. The great Dr. Harry Edwards. Dr. Edwards, welcome to Edge of Sports TV.

Dr. Harry Edwards:

Thank you so much for having me.

Dave Zirin:

I just want to jump right in. If you could tell us, I mean you’ve been giving lectures for decades and now you’re doing something called a project called The Last Lectures. Can you speak to our audience a little bit about what The Last Lecture’s composed of?

Dr. Harry Edwards:

Well, what I intended to do three years ago was to make this my last series really of public lectures, spend more time with my grandsons and family and so forth. This is my 80th trip around the sun and I thought it was about time that I tried to prioritize what I really wanted to do with my life.

So, I wanted to put a cap on over half of century of scholar activism and look at the whole history of athlete activism, the 157 year history and the contributions that had been made by athletes to those efforts to form that more perfect union, contributions that have either been downplayed or overshadowed by their athletic prowess are simply ignored and denied because that degree of activist concern beyond the arena made a lot of people in the mainstream in particular feel uncomfortable. And so, they tended to downplay, discount, neglect, forget, lose that perspective on 157 years of athletes transforming their athletic stages into platforms of advocacy, in an effort to help broaden democratic participation in American society.

Dave Zirin:

Now, athletes of course have this incredible ability to affect society, affect change, move the needle, reach people who otherwise perhaps could not be reached. What is it about the situational place of the athlete, particularly the Black athlete, that has given them a degree of power that allows them to punch through a little bit of the silencing that particularly happens to Black America?

Dr. Harry Edwards:

Well, as I point out in the Sociology Of Sport, a discipline that had been disciplinary possibility that had been overlooked for generations. We invest so much in of our most critical values and sentiments into sport. People identify with athletic teams because they see themselves in their own life struggles taking place through that prism of sport that we can usually change … Circumstances change people by changing their perspectives and understandings of the games that they played. That was a revolutionary statement in 1968 when churches were being bombed and leaders were being shot down and people were being bitten and driven down the street with fire hoses so powerful they could take the bark off trees. For somebody to stand up, raise their hand and say, “Hey, these guys out here playing basketball have something critical to contribute. These guys out here running track have something critical to contribute.”

And of course, a lot of people laugh. They’re not laughing anymore. But initially they didn’t understand that whole history. But at the time I was writing the Sociology Of Sport, so I understood that struggle was already a century old. So, the basic investment that people and societies have in their sports institution as an affirmation of a legitimation … a something that legitimizes the perspectives and so forth that they have ideologically value, sentiment-wise and so forth, you can use that investment to change people’s perceptions and understanding of sport and in that way, change them and society.

So, women’s sports have had a tremendous impact in terms of changing perceptions of women in American society. And of course, it’s inextricably intertwined with what’s going on in the broader society. So, something like the resending of Roe v. Wade constitutes an existential threat to women’s sports.

People talk about Title IX in 1972, that mandated parity for women in terms of expenditures in sports and other areas of education. But what they don’t talk about is 1973 Rowe v. Wade, which gave colleges and universities and professional teams that would eventually emerge some assurance that if we gave this woman a contract, if we gave this woman an athletic scholarship in May, she’d be around in September to start the season. She’d be round in March to play in March … and she’d be round in June to run in the NCAA track championships or play the finals of a professional sport and so forth.

So all of that now is again in question, but it goes back to something else that I stated in 1968, that the challenges of our circumstances are diverse and dynamic. Our struggle therefore, necessarily must be multifaceted and perpetual and there are no final victories. We keep going back, fighting battles that the last generation thought won, but there are no final victories. So, here we are again, trying to eliminate this consigning of women to reproductive bondage, as if it were 1920 or 1950.

We’re again fighting for voting rights, as if it were 1965 or 1866 at the onset of reconstruction. Here we are again, fighting for access to higher education, terrain that we thought we had conquered. We’re going back fighting battles over that terrain. So, there are no final victories and sport reflects all of this. Sport in point of fact is the canary in the mineshaft that tells us something about what’s going on in the broader society.

Dave Zirin:

In the late ’60s, did you believe then that a final victory was possible that smashing or dismantling institutions of oppression was a possibility? And how has your thinking evolved on that over time?

Dr. Harry Edwards:

No, I never thought that there was a final … Matter of fact, the statement that I made about there being no final victories was in response to a reporter in 1968 when we shut down the New York Athletic Club over discrimination. They would invite us in to participate in the New York Athletic Club Indoor Track Classic, but we couldn’t walk into the New York Athletic Club. We couldn’t stay overnight at the New York Athletic Club. And so, I knew that the reporter asked me, Well, doctor, if Jackie Robinson wasn’t able to get this done, look at Bill Russell. Look at Elgin Baylor, look at all of these great Black athletes who’ve come along. What makes you think that you are going to be able to get it done through such tactics and strategies as boycotting the New York Athletic Club or this proposed boycott of the United States Olympic team that you’re proposing? What makes you think that that’s going to get it done?”

And that’s when I made the statement that there are no final victories. Every generation has to confront the challenges before them. And sometimes, those challenges involve re-fighting, re-battling over terrain that the last generation thought it had conquered. There are no final victories.

This is what this whole notion of pursuing that more perfect union, we’re never going to be have a perfect union, but we have that mandate constitutionally, we the people, to pursue forming that more perfect union. And it doesn’t say we the people with the exception of athletes, and thank God it doesn’t say we the people, thank God it says we the people and not we the presidents, or we the Supreme Court justices or we the United States Congress, or we the state legislators or governors. It says we the people and that includes the athletes. And many of us always took that seriously.

So, there was no question in my mind, or in the mind of H. Rap Brown, who I had extensive discussions with about this issue, or in the mind of Dr. King who I also discussed this issue with. And we held a press conference in New York City on January 17th, 1968 in point of fact, about this very issue, that sport and society are inextricably intertwined. And what is a legitimate battle in society is also a legitimate battle in sports. And we have a greater and more visible platform to make statements and to project visions of change in sport.

So no, I was writing my dissertation on the sociology of sport in 1968. I was a student of sport and society. And so I’ve never had this notion that somehow there’s going to be some final blow that’s going to free up even the institution of sport, much less society.

Dave Zirin:

One of your observations in the ’60s, which was so bracing, which I have not found record of anybody making previously, was that US Black Olympians were being used to sell a lie abroad about the state of racism in the United States. Fast forward to today, global superstars from Jordan to LeBron, are we still in that place where the global fame of athletes can be incredible and powerful, but it could also possibly obscure problems here at home?

Dr. Harry Edwards:

Well, that’s true, but you have to put that in context as well. There’s never been a progressive movement involving race in American society that was not transactions. What we have to offer that society values in exchange for giving us a role, a participatory role, in increasingly democratic society. What do we have to offer? So, there’s never been a move, progressive move, involving race in American society that was not transactional.

People talk about the Black quarterback today. “Oh, isn’t it wonderful that the NFL has finally awakened to the fact that Black quarterbacks are intelligent enough and so forth to play quarterbacking at the highest level?” Nonsense. What gave us the Black quarterback was not a change in attitude about race and so forth in the NFL among NFL owners and coaches. What gave us the black quarterback was the fact that Bill Walsh, Sid Gillman, Eric Coryell, moved the game from a run first to a pass first game, which meant that a quarterback could win a game with a 80 yard pass. And I don’t care if he had been ahead, the other team had been ahead, the whole game.

So, you began to develop a counter to the quarterback, which was the sack artist, Lawrence Taylor, most certainly Charles Haley, people like Michael Strahan and so forth. These sack artists began to take over. So, now it wasn’t enough just to have pocket mobility, despite all of the built-in Tom Brady protections for the the pocket passer and so forth. You had to have escapability. And so all of a sudden, a Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes, these guys became prototypical NFL quarterback.

What gave us the Black quarterback was not a change, a victory in NFL football in terms of the perceptions of black intellectual capability and so forth. What gave us the black quarterback in the NFL was Michael Strahan, Charles Haley, Lawrence Taylor, and others, just as surely as the lion gave the antelope his speed.

So, at the end of the day, we have to recognize that transaction is what is critically important, and that has been all along the way. So, Black athletes taking center stage abroad came about as a consequence, in part as a result of the post World War II, Cold War with China and the Soviet Union. And now, with Russia and China as they point out to Africa, Central and South America and Asia, you’re going to go with them as opposed to us? Look at how they treat Black people in their own country. Look at how they treat Asians in their own country. Look at how they’re treating Latino immigrants in their own country.

And so, to have Latino baseball players at center stage, to have Black basketball and football players at center stage, is a transactional situation that evolved in consequence of broader issues, as well as internal demands for greater freedom, justice, and equality as we pursue forming that more perfect union. And it’s an ongoing struggle. Yes, is the situation changed today from the post-World War II years when they brought in Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby in baseball, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode and Marion Motley and Bill Willis in football, Chuck Cooper, Nat Clifton and Earl Lloyd in basketball? No, it hasn’t changed. The dynamic is the same. What has changed are the actors.

Dave Zirin:

There’s a story that I’d love for you to tell. I just read about it at the Andscape website. I didn’t know any of this history. 1987, Al Campanis on the Nightline TV show, he was the president GM of the Los Angeles Dodgers and he said that Black people did not have the necessities to become baseball managers and executives. He was quickly fired. And then please take it from here. What happened next?

Dr. Harry Edwards:

Well, my fellow San Jose Spartan, Peter Ueberroth was also commissioner of Major League Baseball at that time. And he asked me to come in, work out a plan, a strategy to make this correct because Al Campanis was really being scapegoated for a attitude that was more or less general in the baseball hierarchy in this country. And Peter Ueberroth understood that.

So, he said, “I’m not going to interfere with you. You do what you feel is necessary to make this right, to put us on the right path in terms of it. Campanis is probably through in baseball, but we can do something I think to get on the right path in terms of how we handle this situation.” So, the first thing I did when I came in was to hire Al Campanis. Because at some point, I don’t care how far apart we are as a nation, we’re going to have to come to together.

We’re going to have to sit down at the table, arrive at some agreement as to the direction we want to go in, and then give people the latitude, even those who have made grievous mistakes to say, “I want to help.” And when I contacted Al, the first thing he asked me was, “What could I do to help?” I said, “Al, you know more about baseball than I will ever know. Who are great candidates to be front office officials in Major League baseball.” The first person he named was Dusty Baker. And I said, “Well, let’s meet with Dusty Baker.” He was out of the Dodgers organization, like Al.

And so, we met at a restaurant that was under pressure because of hiring practices and so forth in terms of minorities. We went in there and sat down at that restaurant and met with Dusty. And we decided that not only would we bring pressure to hire Dusty Baker, but we would have him hired by the Dodgers’ arch competitor, arch adversary, the San Francisco Giants.

And so, Dusty went into the San Francisco Giants organization, was hired and now has worked him his way up, of course, to be a successful manager. And in point of fact, was the World Series championship manager in 2022. Unfortunately, neither team had a African American on its roster, even though the Astros had … Dusty’s team of course had a Black manager. So, at the end of the day, Dusty Baker was a product of Al Campanis and I trying to come together to demonstrate two things, that even arch rivals could cooperate and collaborate to make something great happen in terms of what we’re supposed to be as a society, what we professed to be as a nation. And that even people as far apart as a 1960s radical such as myself, a Black Power advocate and organizer, and a Al Campanis can come together to try to make this thing right.

And in point of fact, our basic position was that as a people and as a nation, we have no other option. And the greatest thing about having no other option than to come together, sit around the table, arrive at some strategy to move forward, is that you have no other option. And so, that makes it a little bit easier. And that’s what Al Campanis and I were trying to do, both in terms of us getting together and also having Dusty Baker who came out of the Dodger organization, being hired by the Dodgers’ arch rival, the San Francisco Giants, and then moving forward of course, and it all coming to fruition this past year in the World Series.

Dave Zirin:

Yeah, an amazing story. And that chapter in it was certainly something that was not said during the broadcast, which makes your testimony about it so incredibly important.

Dr. Harry Edwards:


Dave Zirin:

And it speaks to this other question which I’d be so remiss if I didn’t ask you. Over the last many decades, you have been the most prominent public in intellectual allowed in this sports world space, to be able to debate, discuss, and influence policy. And frankly, I don’t even know who number two would be.

And I wanted to ask you about the secret sauce because I know a lot of young academics right now, young sports … I’m sure you’re meeting them too. This new generation of sports scholars are attempting to be more forward facing, more public, trying to connect with athletes, trying to develop new theories. I think they who watch this program would love to know how it’s done. Is there any applicable advice for your ability to get inside the room that you can share?

Dr. Harry Edwards:

Yes. My first piece of advice would be to hold on to that dream of contributing, of being part of that narrative, of making a contribution in that definitional struggle about what we ought to be as a society, what we already are as a nation, and the trajectory of where we might be headed as a people if we do not resolve some of these critical divisions and so forth that we’re faced with.

Hold on to that dream of having input into that. Do not be dissuaded, discouraged and so forth because you’re not getting a call from a major network or because you’re not getting eighty requests for lectures and panels a year.

The second thing that I would say is learn to dream with your eyes open. Never allow yourself to take for granted that anything that has happened will continue to have the impact initially, as it was initially conceived. And also, understand that there are things that emerge within the context of evolving reality that nobody had anticipated, but that can be managed within the context of your understanding of the dynamics involved.

And the third thing that I would say, is take full advantage of the only shortcut to getting to where you want to get. Take full advantage of the only demonstrable shortcut to success in this realm. And that is hard work. Everything else is more difficult.

You have to put in the homework, the study, the analysis. You have to make the kinds of decisions that position you to see more clearly. That position you to think in greater depth. And if you don’t do that, if you are discouraged by, “Well, so-and-so said that that’s not important. So-and-so says that sports is the tar department of human affairs. So-and-so says there’s no such thing as a sociology of sport.”

And I mean, the kinds of arguments that I had to pose to simply get that argument and discussion on the table. It sounds ludicrous, but I had to argue at one of the greatest institutions in this society, Cornell University, the PhD program. I had to argue, if sociologists are paying attention to dyads, two person relationships and triads, three person relationships and writing dissertations and monographs and all other kinds of things on these relationships, but a hundred million people watching the NFL championship game is not worthy of sociological analysis, then somebody is insane and it’s not me. And finally he said, “Okay, you can write your dissertation in that area.”

So, you can’t be dissuaded by the limitations of vision evidenced by those who you, because of the area that you’re working in, have to work with. You have to cut them some slack, give them some latitude, try to point them in a different direction, but never, ever be diminished in your dream of making a contribution.

Look, I’m on my 80th trip around the sun. This is one that is going to be over sooner rather than later, more than likely. There’s going to be ample space for people to step in and say, “If old Edwards can do this, if he can illuminate an area of academic activist, popular development to this extent, geez, how much more can I do? Because I’m just that much better, smarter, insightful than he was.” That’s the attitude that they should take.

Dave Zirin:

And the other incredible, almost puzzling talent that you’ve had over the decades is the ability to connect with the individual athlete. I say puzzling because we all know that to be a pro athlete takes an incredible dedication. A lot of these young men and women wear blinders just for the purposes of getting to those goals. And yet, you’ve been able to pull back the blinders in a lot of one-on-one and group conversations.

Again, an advice question. You’re connecting with an athlete. What is the best way to let them know that not only you care, but that you have some knowledge that can help push everybody forward?

Dr. Harry Edwards:

I think that in the age of social media, that’s easier than ever. You can respond to athletes’ websites, Twitter accounts, Instagrams and so forth. But more important than anything, it’s dealing honestly with the realities and so forth that athletes and all of us are impacted by and involved with.

I was blessed throughout my professional and career development to have personal contacts, to be able to pick up the telephone and call, to be able to meet with, one-on-one, some of the greatest athletes that this nation has ever produced. I don’t care whether it’s Arthur Ashe, or Tommie Smith and John Carlos, or Bill Russell or Jim Brown, or Curt Flood, Wilma Rudolph. To be able to pick up the telephone and chat with them about an issue that came out in a Sports Illustrated, or how they might handle a problem that came up in their particular sport, has been a tremendous blessing for me.

But the obstacle, the main obstacle, to getting to that level is not from the side of the athletes. It’s from the side of the individual who aspires to have those kinds of conversations which become a critical dimension of their analysis and understanding of the sports institution and its role in society. If you don’t know the people most critically involved, and it is the athletes who are most critically involved in sports, I don’t care how great an owner you are, nobody’s going to come to see Jerry Jones play quarterback against Robert Kraft. They come to see the athletes. And so, that connection becomes critical, but getting access to that connection is always difficult but there are … It’s easier today because of the social media than ever before.

Dave Zirin:

You’ve been so generous with your time, Dr. Edwards. Just one last question. We’re going full circle now with the last lectures. No one really gets to choose their legacy, but what would you like your legacy to be in the decades ahead?

Dr. Harry Edwards:

You know, that’s one that I’ve given virtually no thought to cause that’s not one that I can control. That’s something that people will ride after I’m on the other side of the lawn. But if I had an image, if there was something that I would like to be remembered for, it would be this. I would like people to know, to believe, to think, that I was a great teacher.

We’ve all heard that old saying, those who can, do. And those who would prepare, develop and certify those who do, teach. I think that teaching is the greatest profession in the world because unlike dentistry, medicine, architecture, law, chemistry, who do … All of these professionals, who do something for somebody, a great teacher incites people to think and inspires them to learn, so that they can do for themselves. And that is the greatest thing that you will ever do for anyone.

So, I hope that somebody at some point will at least say, “Well yeah, old Edwards was a pain in the you know what. But he was also a great teacher. I think that he helped to change the world’s perspective and understanding of sport, which meant that they had a greater and better understanding of themselves.”

And that is what I would like to be a central part of my legacy. Of course, I’ll never get away from the activist dimension of it, which was such an important part of my teaching because I was just teaching, teaching the world. Being a teacher to me is what is central and critically important.

Dave Zirin:

Yeah, we just happened to be interviewing Solomon Hughes last week and he said to us, “Yeah, my life was changed at Berkeley when I had a professor named Dr. Harry Edwards.” So, that part of your legacy, I think is very secured. Dr. Edwards, thanks so much for joining us on Edge Of Sports TV.

Dr. Harry Edwards:

Oh, thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be with your privilege, anytime.

Dave Zirin:

Okay. As I said earlier, I have no ask a sports scholar segment because who would want to follow Dr. Harry frigging Edwards? But I do have some choice words.

Okay, look, for those who do not know, we record and produce this TV show in the great city of Baltimore, a place with a sports history, as rich as any in the worlds of pro baseball and football, but without an NBA team. This was not always the case. In 1963, Baltimore got a team as the Chicago Packers moved to town and called themselves the Baltimore Bullets. Then a decade later, the Bullets left Baltimore for the DC suburbs, first as the Capital Bullets in Landover, Maryland outside of DC. They eventually became known as the Washington Bullets.

The story continues. In 1997, the team dropped the bullets name because of concerns of owner Abe Pollin, that they were glorifying violence. They became the Wizards. But with that rebranding, the team enacted a different kind of violence, this kind cruel and cold, with prophets running rough shot over the people. Pollin moved the team to a brand spanking new arena in the heart of DC’s Chinatown, irrevocably changing the area.

The arrival of the arena was like a bomb going off, flattening the entire community. It signaled the end of Chinatown as a place where actual Chinese and Chinese American families lived and ran shops and restaurants. Instead, it became a neighborhood that adapted to the stadium, as developers tore down local businesses in favor of high-end chains with impossibly bright signage. And of course, in a nod to what was, the names of the restaurants are spelled out in tiny Mandarin lettering, beneath the big signs writ large, promising high end gluttony, either before or after the game. A community had been replaced by a brand.

That shoddy Blade Runner-esque landscape is what exists now in the Chinatown corridor. And so it has been for a quarter century. But now, there are reports that the Washington Wizards are planning their fifth move in 60 years, with an eye on tax breaks and public funds that could be accrued by hightailing it to the Commonwealth of Virginia, along with the NHL’s Washington Capitals, and perhaps even the WNBAs Washington Mystics who are playing in a brand new arena themselves in Southeast DC.

Franchise owner Ted Leonsis who bought the team from Abe Pollin, has decided that threatening to move the teams, straight extortion, is the way he wants to do business with the city. Let’s forget a moment that 70 million was spent to refurbish the arena just two years ago. Let’s forget that if this move happens, the team will either call themselves the Virginia Wizards, which sounds more KKK than a pack of Marlboros, or remain the Washington Wizards, keeping the commercial branding while abandoning the city, a total slap in the face.

Forget that if they dare continue the tradition of playing Welcome To DC by go-go Legends Mambo Sauce in the arena, it would be yet another slap in DC’s face by a feckless franchise that hasn’t won 50 games in a season since Jimmy Carter was president. Also forget that while Northern Virginia is close, it’s psychologically and politically for a lot of folks in DC, a whole other world. Forget all of that.

What is truly vexing me, what’s really grinding my gears, is that this team is now threatening to gut the same neighborhood for the second time in a quarter century. What is going to happen to all those big box bars and restaurants in Chinatown? If the arena leaves, will they be able to stay open? No. Will Chinatown magically come roaring back? No. Instead, we’ll be left with a ghost town of boarded up restaurants, with tumbleweed lazily being blown across Seventh Street.

This is maddening. An utterly venal effort aimed at extorting more money out of a city and a budget crunch. Team owner, Ted Leonsis, might as well be saying, “Nice neighborhood you got here. Be a shame if something happened to it.”

Look, if you know me, you know what my solution to this would be? The city should seize the Wizards, pay off Leonsis and have the team become the most lucrative public utility in the city. Enough with franchise owners coast to coast, threatening our cities for more public welfare during a time of rising inequality and infrastructure degradation. I mean, a portion of I95 quite literally collapsed. And yet, new sports arenas is where the Ted Leonsises of this world are saying we should be spending our precious public funds. So, if you want to break it down to a slogan, save DC save the Wizards, seize the team.

Well, that’s all the time this week. Thank you, Dr. Harry Edwards. Thank you to the team here at The Real News Network. If you are listening right now, if you are watching, please stay frosty, stay safe. We are out of here. Peace.

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