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Dr. Harry Edwards
Dr. Harry Edwards Dr. Harry Edwards


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Twenty-five years ago Harry Edwards was a radical spokesman for the rights of black people, especially in the world of organized athletics Today Edwards carries on his legacy by serving as a sports psychologist and teaching seminars on sports in society at the University of California, Berkeley At six-foot-eight and 245 pounds, Edwards is himself a former athlete who was courted by several professional sports teams He chose to remain in academics instead, and has become one of the first nationally known university professors to demonstrate that a nation's sporting community can serve as a model for the professional world at large As a young instructor at San Jose State College in 1968, Edwards used Black Panther rhetoric to urge his brothers and sisters to boycott organized athletics--especially the Olympic Games "For years we have participated in the Olympic Games, carrying the United States on our backs with our victories, and race relations are now worse than ever," he told the New York Times Magazine in 1968 "We're not trying to lose the Olympics for the Americans What happens to them is immaterial.

But it's time for the black people to stand up as men and women and refuse to be utilized as performing animals for a little extra dog food" Edwards has mellowed in the decades since, but he is still a strong advocate of black participation in the management of professional sports He serves as a staff consultant to the San Francisco 49ers football team and to the Golden State Warriors basketball team He is also actively involved in recruiting black talent for front-office positions in major league baseball All these efforts are sidelines, however; Edwards is a tenured professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, where he lectures on sports in society and on race relations in professional athletics "The establishment has changed to the extent that they decided to invite me in," he later told the New York Times Magazine "But I'm like the Statue of Liberty I've been in the same position since Day One" That position is one of defiance toward white power, a result of Edwards's own bitter experiences as a child, a college athlete, and an academic.

The second of eight children, Edwards was born in 1942 in poverty-stricken East St Louis, Missouri "I grew up very hard, it took me a long time to build on layers of civility," he told the New York Times Magazine Edwards's father was an ex-convict who struggled to support his family on a salary of $65 a week His mother left the family when Edwards was eight His family boiled drainage-ditch water to drink and once watched as neighbors burned to death in poorly constructed housing "I pulled my own rotten teeth with my fingers," he remembered Edwards won a Woodrow Wilson fellowship to Cornell University in 1966 He moved to Cornell site Ithaca, New York, and began work on his master's and doctorate degrees On weekends he took the bus to New York City to hear lectures by Malcolm X and other leaders of the black rights movement.

Edwards's doctoral dissertation was on the Black Muslim religion and its potential for raising minority pride By 1967 Edwards was back at San Jose State, this time as a part-time instructor and sports coach Proclaiming himself "at war with the {white} power structure," he first presented a list of civil rights grievances to the school administration on behalf of black students, especially the athletes He spearheaded a group that threatened to "physically interfere" with the opening game of San Jose State's football season if the group's demands were not addressed As Robert Lipsyte put it in the New York Times Magazine, "It was a regional watershed in radical sports activism, and the mainstream reaction was also a first; the opening game was canceled The undercurrent of racism in American sports was out on the table for good" When then-governor Ronald Reagan heard of the game cancellation he called it "appeasement of lawbreakers" and declared Edwards "unfit to teach" Edwards, in turn, called the governor of California "a petrified pig, unfit to govern" Edwards then turned his attention to the national level and, from his office at San Jose State, organized a drive to persuade athletes to boycott organized sporting events The drive gained impetus in the spring of 1968, as the Olympics drew near.

"What value is it to a black man to win a medal if he returns to the hell of Harlem?" asked Edwards in Time magazine "They are only being used to further the racist attitudes of the USA" Edwards's group had its biggest success at the annual track meet of the New York Athletic Club By coercion in some cases and persuasion in others, he and other black militants saw to it that very few black athletes participated in the meet National attention had finally caught up with Edwards, as did the consequences; his two dogs were hacked to death and the initials KKK scratched on his car Still he persisted, berating the "crackers" in the white power elite His Olympic boycott appeared at first to be a failure Instead, it became an international statement when two victorious black runners, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raised black-gloved fists in a black power salute during the traditional playing of the national anthem after their event.

A photographer captured the moment and the two athletes were thrown off the team Lipsyte wrote of Edwards's disciples: "Their image was burned into history, an icon of nonviolent protest" In 1970 Edwards moved to the University of California, Berkeley, where he quickly became a favorite among students of all races There he continued his crusade for equitable treatment of black athletes According to Lipsyte, Edwards's campaigns "were successful by longer-term measures, as consciousness-raisers, as 'teach-ins' It would never be possible again to regard sports as a never-never land, a sweaty Brigadoon: There was racism in sports; blacks were exploited" Edwards is generally considered the first academic to establish the legitimacy of sport as an integral part--and reflection--of society Edwards faced a crucial test in 1976: He had been an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, for six years when he was refused tenure A university committee voted 10-8 to deny him tenure--the right to continue teaching at Berkeley--because he had failed to publish significantly in professional journals The uproar at his dismissal went far beyond the boundaries of the Berkeley campus; students, clergymen, fellow sociologists, athletes, and even California governor Jerry Brown wrote letters of protest to the university.

In the end, the committee's decision was reversed, and its popular professor was allowed to stay Inevitably, Edwards has concerned himself with the physical and psychological well-being of athletes, both professional and amateur He has urged athletes not to use performance-enhancing drugs such as anabolic steroids, and has pressure.



 
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Chris Webber attended the Sports Activism and Social Change Conference hosted by San Jose State University with Dr. Harry Edwards.
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