Harry Edwards on Social Rights Activism in Sports

Michel Martin sits down with a sociologist and civil rights activist Harry Edwards who has been behind protests by high-profile athletes for more than fifty years.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Now, in a moment, we’ll bring you my interview with the theater, film and television star, Gillian Anderson. But first, we turn from activism in schools to activism in sports, where America’s racial struggles play out to every level, from the youngest beginners to the highest paid professional athletes. Dr. Harry Edwards is a sociologist and a civil rights activist who’s been behind protests by high-profile athletes for more than 50 years. And our Michel Martin asked Dr. Edwards how he sees the many links between sports and social justice.

MICHEL MARTIN: Professor Harry Edwards, thank you so much for speaking with us.


MARTIN: When did you understand that sports was about more than the contest itself, more than the game itself, that there was a bigger picture to it? Do you remember when that insight came to you?

EDWARDS: Well, yes. My awareness evolved in the face of my study of sociology and my experiences as a scholarship athlete. It became very clear to me early on that in point of fact it wasn’t how well you play the game or your competence or capability or potential in terms of the sport, it has to do with a lot about the issues, oftentimes reflecting issues that were in the broader society. I thought that there was something strange as an undergraduate scholarship athlete about the fact that the greatest trainers and track players that we had at the school were Black, the leading rebounders, the scores at basketball were Black, the best running backs and defensive backs were Black, but there were no Black coaches, there were no Black professors on campus to speak of. I think that there was one that I never got to know, never got to meet white I was an undergraduate there. But I thought that there was something wrong with that. And as I began to delve into it from a sociological perspective, it became very, very clear that it reflected circumstances in society.

MARTIN: You have been a part of our discussions about sports and society, particularly race and society for half a century now. I mean, people will remember, say with Tommy Smith and John Carlos, the Olympic sprinters who made a protest at the 68th Olympics, I think to this day maybe one of the most sort of iconic images of protests in sports going straight through to Colin Kaepernick, the former 49ers quarterback, who has gotten so much attention for his protests against police violence, sort of, and other matters. You have been influential in all of that. What would you describe as your role in these important moments?

EDWARDS: I’m basically a teacher. And in all of these instances, I was a counsellor or a teacher in the case of Carlos and Smith, a counselor to Kaepernick, and they would ask me questions and I would give them honest answers and perspectives on the issues that they were raising. There’s nothing new about athlete protest. This goes back to the turn of the 20th Century, it goes back to pleasure Plessy versus Ferguson and separate but equal. In point of fact, Plessy versus Ferguson, which was the United States Supreme Court edict in 1896 says nothing about separate but equal. So, when you look at athletes such as Jack Johnson who trailed White heavyweight champions all over the world, demanding a fight, when you look at athletes such as Jesse Owens, when you look at athletes such as Joe Lewis, when you look at athletes such as Paul Robeson, when you look at the Negro Leagues, you begin to recognize upon analysis that the Negro Leagues, for example, was a resistance movement. The goal of Plessy versus Ferguson was to push Black people back as close to slavery as possible without actually calling it that. Athletes had a role in rebelling against that and the resistance against that and the parallel Black athletic performances that, at the turn of the century, were about establishing legitimacy were part of that resistance movement. Kaepernick was saying there’s something wrong about 147 Black men, women and children being shot down, largely unarmed, being shot down by police every year. But instead, it was converted into, “Well. this is a protest against the flag. This is a protest against the police.”

MARTIN: Let’s go back into your history lesson, if you would, for a moment. You’re saying that Black athletes have always been part of resistance movements, in fact, you’re saying, I think what I hear you saying, is that Black athletic — Black athleticism, in itself, has sometimes been resistance in and of itself, like, for example, the Negro Leagues was itself a resistance movement. But wouldn’t it be fair to say that say Tommy Smith and John Carlos making overt political gestures did represent something new? Would you say that that was true?

EDWARDS: Well, it represented something new but every phase of the athlete’s resistance movement, protest movement has been something new. So, the first era was about legitimacy and the situation of abject segregation. The second wave of athletic activism with Jackie Robinson was about the struggle for desegregation and access. The third wave was about dignity and respect. Jim Brown said straight out, “I’ve played football for respect.” Muhammad Ali wanted respect for his name, he wanted respect for his religion, he wanted respect and the dignity of conscientious objection. Bill Russell refused to be called a basketball player. He said unequivocally, “I’m a man with a whole bunch of talents. One of which is I have a tremendous talent for winning basketball games, but that doesn’t make me a basketball player.” And so, as we go through these various phases, we find that no error does things the way that the last era did. Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid and Michael Bennett and Malcolm Jenkins and those athletes are not doing things the way that Tommy Smith and John Carlos did.

MARTIN: Many people say they believe that Kaepernick has been blackballed as a result of this. Do you think he was prepared for all of that? I know that you spoke with him and advised him. Was he prepared for the magnitude of all this?

EDWARDS: I think that he was accepting for whatever came. He was accepting of whatever might come. And we discussed specifically the outcomes of Muhammad Ali who lost the championship, the outcomes of Smith and Carlos who were banned from amateur athletic competitions, we talked about Joe Lewis and Jesse Owens as great an athlete — as great as they were as athletes, as patriotic as they were of athletes, they wound up being hounded most of their lives by the Internal Revenue Service. So, anytime you are high-profile and you stand up for it or you are a part of the resistance movement in terms of this whole history of America’s — one of America’s original sense, White supremacy, the other one being patriarchy, then you’re going to pay a price. And so, I don’t think that Colin had any illusions that that would be some backlash and in point of fact, the backlash came all along the way, and he was accepting of that reality and willing to pay that price.

MARTIN: You’re a tenured professor, you were a professor at Emeritus at your institution and I know that you had a struggle to get tenure for — because — I think it’s assumed in part because of your activism, shall we say, although you did ultimately get tenure. But is there any part of you that when you see a young man like Kaepernick coming forward, seeking your advice, wants to tell him no, don’t do it?

EDWARDS: No, I never tell athletes or anybody else I counsel what to do. I tell them the likely outcomes, depending upon what type of option they choose. I have been in that situation. I was fired from San Jose State for organizing the Olympic Project for Human Rights and shutting the school down over issues of racial injustice. I was persona non grata at Cornell University for half a century. They have just invited me back this coming April as a consequence of the takeover of Willard Straight Hall, which they — the chancellor blamed me for at Cornell. And so, for 50 years, I’ve never been back on that campus, even though I lectured at virtually every other league university, from Harvard University, to PAM and Yale and so forth. University of California denied me tenure over that period of time that I’ve been out there as an activist. I mean, in the 1960s I was shot at, twice. So, I know that that goes on. You don’t have to be a celebrity to run into those kinds of issues. You don’t even have to be an activist.

MARTIN: I know that you are aware that these protests, particularly ones that attract a lot of attention, sometimes, you know, repel as many people as they attract and I know that — I was reading that you actually conducted an exercise or thought experiment, if we want to call it, that with an audience that you were speaking with and you asked them, you know, “How many of you are uncomfortable with these protests or slightly uncomfortable to very uncomfortable?” and you said that — what, was it something like 60 percent of the hands went up?



EDWARDS: About 75 percent of the audience.

MARTIN: So, how do you respond to that then, those who say, “Well, it’s not productive then,” if most of the people in the audience are uncomfortable with it? What do you say to that?

EDWARDS: No, because they don’t want the discussion. You got — I’m not – – these protests are not about making people feel comfortable, making people feel OK, it’s about promoting the discussion. And the reason you have the shift from the points that Kaepernick and these other protesting athletes have been trying to make, that we are better than a 147 Black men, women and children being shot down in this society every year since 1968 by representatives of the judicial system, we’re better than that. They don’t want to discuss that. They don’t want to discuss why it’s so (INAUDIBLE). They don’t want to discuss injustice. So, that is simply the nature of protests. There has never been a protest by a minority in American society where the American mainstream has stood up and said, “Amen, we support that.” That’s why they call it a protest rather than a picnic.

MARTIN: So, you’ve recently wrote a piece talking about why there were so few people continuing to kneel during NFL games. Last year, for example, there were a couple of hundred people who are participating in these protests that became like a major sort of story. By the end of this season, there were sort of very few. How should we interpret that? Does that mean that these protests were not successful or that the athlete were intimidated from continuing them?

EDWARDS: Well, first of all, you have a situation which is not organically connected to the sports that are involved. The issues that Kaepernick and these athletes were taking the kneel about and so forth came over the Stadium Wall from the broader society. So, you’re unlikely to get a large proportion of athletes saying, “Yes, I’m going to do that because they’re not directly and specifically impacted and affected by the issues in question.” The second thing is that these types of movements tend to have about a six- year life span. That is to say if you go back and look from the time that Lebron James and D. Wade and the Miami Heat did the hoodie demonstration, up until last year, it’s about six years, from 2012 up until 2018. So, these movements have about a six-year lifespan, the Black Power Movement, which was initiated with Stokely Carmichael in 1966. By 1972, it was virtually dead. They have that period of life principally because of internal contradictions and challenges. So, these kinds of evolutions and the window of time when you can be active and effective are sociologically predictable. That’s one of the things that we’ve learned through pursuing the sociology of sports.

MARTIN: Well, I know that you say that you don’t tell athletes what to do but I am going to invite you to you and say, now — you’ve said that this is like the natural lifespan of this kind of protest, what should happen now in your view? What would you like to see happen now?

EDWARDS: Well, I would like to see this whole thing move from protest, which have already diminished substantially, to policies and programs for the interest of generating progress. Kaepernick is not against the police, he’s not against the justice system, he’s against injustice. That means that collaboratively, we’re going to have to come together and get everybody around the table, including the police, including the citizens, including the people from the various sports and determine how do we move this thing from this focus on protest to progress through changes and policies and the development of collaborative programs.

MARTIN: There have been a couple of reports lately that suggest that the American love affair with football is waning. In fact, a number of high-profile figures in the sport, for example, like Terry Bradshaw have said that he wouldn’t let his sons play. In fact, he’s not the only one and I wonder what you make of that. I mean —

EDWARDS: Well, not — you have Hall of Fame football players, NFL football players who say they would not allow their sons to play football. You have the USA Football League which is down 17 percent, you have Pop Warner Football down — which is down over 20 percent over the last two years. And so, what you have is this decline at the level of development in terms of people allowing their sons to play football but that is why you’re going to have an overwhelmingly black league. As I talked to one mother from Oakland who had a son playing football in college and in high school, she said, “Hey. You’re telling me about the concussion issue and my son could be killed on the way to football practice right here. If he can play football and that’s the way for him to move up and out and be — and get better circumstances, not just for himself but for the family, then he’s going to play football.” When you look at that kind of reasoning, which makes sense, don’t tell me about a concussion that might impact my son 25 years from now, look at the circumstances we’re in. You see blacks being channeled into football despite the medical issues. The other thing is that blacks historically have not trusted the medical profession. Going back to the Tuskegee experiments on syphilis and beyond, they have not trusted the medical profession. So even when they have the information, oftentimes they look at it as scams. And then the third thing is because they’re so committed to the sport, they tend to dominate in those positions that they have access to. And so there’s nobody else out there competing at that level. So for all of those reasons, blacks are going to prevail in football. And that’s who you’re going to be watching in the NFL. So it’s not just an issue of whites pulling their sons out of football at the developmental level, it’s that old issue of whether whites will watch what is substantially an overwhelmingly black league.

MARTIN: I do find myself wondering after half a century in the fight, what’s your state of mind? I mean do you feel that progress is being made? Do you feel optimistic?

EDWARDS: I’m overwhelmingly optimistic.

MARTIN: Because?

EDWARDS: We have to understand that movements are a part of America’s political DNA. Old Sam Adams and his sons of Liberty Movement was not a British government program when they threw that 300-plus boxes of tea into the Boston Harbor. All throughout American history, there have been movements. This protest movement that was set in motion by the Miami Heat and followed up on by Colin Kaepernick, those are traditional and as American as cherry pie. We came out of the Abolitionist Movement better. We came out of the Labor Movement with an eight-hour day. We came out of the Women’s Movement with the women’s right to vote. We came out of the Civil Rights Movement with a Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. We’re going to come out of the Black Lives Matter Movement better. We’re going to come out of this movement among protesting athletes better because that is what we Americans do.

MARTIN: Harry Edwards is Professor Emeritus at San Jose State University. He’s the author of “The Revolt of the Black Athlete.” Professor Edwards, thank you so much for talking with us.

EDWARDS: Thank you. My privilege.

AMANPOUR: Doctor Edwards was talking about his relationship with Colin Kaepernick. He settled his case against the NFL. Though the details have not been disclosed. And now, we turn to another distinguished veteran, Gillian Anderson, an actress at the very top of her profession in television, theater, and film. From her breakout role as star of the number one hit, the X-Files to her surprisingly as a self-proclaimed shag specialist in the Netflix comedy “Sex Education”. Now, she’s back on stage in London’s West End in a brilliant, new production of “All About Eve.” It’s an adaptation of the classic Hollywood movie, which is best remembered for its iconic performance by Bette Davis as the actress Margo Channing. Anderson’s take on Channing is very much of this cultural moment. It’s a penetrating look at hot button issues from sexism to ageism to our obsession with physical beauty. When I spoke with Gillian Anderson here in London, I asked her about the daunting challenge of filling Bette Davis’s shoes in the play that has just made its debut. Gillian Anderson, welcome to the program.

GILLIAN ANDERSON, ACTRESS: Thank you for having me.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour speaks with Pedro Noguera & Nate Bowling about the recent teacher strikes across America; and actress Gillian Anderson about her wide-spanning career. Michel Martin speaks with civil rights activist Harry Edwards about his career in civil rights activism in sports.