Harry Edwards Is Building an Institute for the Modern Athlete-Activist

For many athletes contemplating taking a stand or embracing activist movements, Harry Edwards is the first person to call. But Edwards knows he won't be around forever, so he's building something that could be.

Mar 20 2017, 1:00pm

Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

If some fans had hoped 2016 would be the year that athletes "shut up and stick to sports," they were likely disappointed. Athletes spoke out, on social media as well as in the U.S. Congress. They acted, whether by holding town halls with cops or giving millions to non-profits.

Most notoriously, they took a knee, as Colin Kaepernick did during the National Anthem before a pre-season 49ers game last September. The act inspired dozens of pro athletes and hundreds of kid athletes to follow suit, and it sparked a new conversation (some would say shouting match) about race in America. It provoked other athletes to reflect on what they were doing about the issues that mattered to them.

It all looked something like what sports sociologist Harry Edwards had been expecting: a reactivation of the athlete-activist for the modern era. Edwards had led the old guard. In the late 1960s, drawing on the civil rights movement and the nation's broader mood of protest, he helped organize the first-ever movement of black athletes in America. His work reached college campuses, private athletic clubs, and even the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

Read More: The Agitator—Harry Edwards on the Revolt of Today's Black Athlete

Now nearly 75 years old and deep in the back nine of his career, Edwards wants to convert this new movement—and consolidate his life's work—into something that will outlast him.

"I've always considered myself a scholar-activist," said Edwards, an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. "I wanted to find some vehicle that would institutionalize that."

The chosen vehicle is a new center at San Jose State University, his alma mater, called the Institute for the Study of Sport, Society, and Social Change. Formally launched in January, the institute mirrors Edwards' dual roles as scholar and activist. One half of its mission is to support research that examines sports in the 21st century with an eye to race, gender, and class. The other half is to serve as a sort of "hive mind" for athletes and activists, to help them understand what's been done before and how to maximize the impact of their own acts.

Today, a lot of that work gets done through Edwards' phone. Before the Super Bowl, he said, activists called him to spitball some ideas: Should they rush the field at halftime? Should they organize a mass kneeling of players?

"There's no productive outcome of that kind of behavior and action, even assuming that you're able to approach getting it done," he said. Edwards, who has shut down a football game himself, felt they hadn't thought it through: the disruption, the backlash, what their real demands were. "And I have to talk these people down away from that kind of madness. That kind of thoughtless, pointless thing is out there. There should be an area where these kinds of notions are simply eliminated."

Kaepernick and teammates kneeling during the anthem last season. Photo by Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Edwards' experience is hard-won. In the 1960s, as a six-foot-eight, 250-pound discus recruit at San Jose State College (California's legislature renamed the school in 1974), he experienced the same housing discrimination that was typical for the school's black athletes. By 1967, he was a professor intent on doing something about it. He teamed up with SJSC athletes to shut down a football game on campus; the school responded with anti-discrimination reforms in housing, admissions, and Greek life.

Soon, he was helping black athletes organize around the country, including an attempt to boycott the 1968 Olympics. (Athletes chose to protest at the Games instead.)

In his 1968 book The Revolt of the Black Athlete, Edwards argued that the sports industry was based on racial exploitation and that black athletes were ready to resist. "The day of the black twentieth-century gladiator must be ended," he said. "Some control must be handed over to blacks – or taken by them."

Edwards established a new field, the "sociology of sport," meant to examine sports as a reflection of society rather than a pleasant diversion from it. His classes became popular among Berkeley undergrads. He consulted for sports teams on the side, sometimes on retainer, sometimes called in like a fixer.

The idea for the institute came to him about ten years ago, when his close colleague and friend, former 49ers coach and GM Bill Walsh, passed away. Among his many accomplishments, Walsh had established a minority coaching program that brought more assistant and head coaches of color to the NFL. Edwards and Walsh also cooperated on a program that gave players educational, financial, and counseling resources after football.

"You begin to wonder: With this lifetime body of work, what happens going forward?" Edwards said. "If what you have done was worth the effort in the first place.

"The reality is, there should be some institutionalized structure that carries on the Bill Walsh approach to sport and society."

Edwards' book, The Revolt of the Black Athlete, is being reissued this May.

Edwards considers this a ripe moment. A renewed racial consciousness, embodied by movements like Black Lives Matter, has filtered into the sports world. Kaepernick's knee drew the most attention in 2016, but one study, from the nonprofit Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality, found 225 examples of athlete activism in the second half of the year alone.

Take the WNBA, for instance. Last July, multiple teams wore black shirts during pregame warm-ups in response to police shootings around the county. Three teams—the New York Liberty, the Indiana Fever, and the Phoenix Mercury—were fined for uniform violations; after players responded in the press and on social media, however, the league rescinded the fines.

LeBron James endorsed Hillary Clinton in the presidential election. In November, five NFL players went to Congress to talk to lawmakers about gun violence; one of them, the Detroit Lions' Anquan Boldin, plans to return this month.

More athletes are mulling what they can do, and they know who to ask for feedback. "Right now I'm getting so many calls, there's no way that I can keep up with them," Edwards said. "There's only one me. What I need is about a dozen clones."

For Edwards, the question is about sustainability. What happens when he can't pick up the phone? How can all this energy be converted into something lasting?

His answer is unglamorous and undramatic, maybe, compared to a knee or a raised fist. It's capacity-building. Helping people share knowledge, experience, and best practices. Helping athletes think strategically, not just about drawing media attention but about how to strengthen their hands at the bargaining table.

"Protest and anger and outrage is great. But too often it ends in a situation where you have a bunch of garbage on the road that you gotta walk back through to get to the table," he said. "At some point, I don't care how crazy it gets, all of us, all of the stakeholders are going to have to be around the table and have to engage in a reasoned, analytical, comprehensive discussion of the issues."

Danielle Slaton's playing days are over, but she sees herself as a budding athlete-activist. Slaton captained Santa Clara University's soccer team to the NCAA championship in 2001; she played for the U.S. women's national team from 2000 to 2005. Her dad ran track at San Jose State and was once Edwards' student; she says activism is "in my blood a little."

Today she's back at SCU, advising athletes and coaches at the college, high school, and club sports levels on life skills. "Everything but the X's and O's," she said. She sees the younger generation as less biased than their elders but also idealistic, concerned about the country, the environment, and the world.

"They want to do something about it," she said. "They don't necessarily always know how to do those things, or know what they can do. But this is really the time when they're starting to figure themselves out and figure out what they care about."

Slaton was a panelist at the SJSU Institute's January launch. She's hopeful Edwards' initiative can help athletes who say, "Hey, I want to do something, but I'm not sure how to do it."

But she added that today's athlete-activist faces a different challenge than Edwards did 50 years ago.

"Now it's about unconscious bias, and institutionalized racism, and systems that have been in place for decades that we're starting to have to examine the ramifications of," she said. "I think it's much more nuanced now."

Jim Brown, Bill Russell, and Edwards on a panel at the LBJ Presidential Library. Photo by David Hume Kennerly

Edwards' hope for the institute is that it can do what he does, but at a bigger scale, and for long after he's gone. He wants to put up a sort of online encyclopedia of sports activism, a "site for ideas, analysis, best practices, clarification of information."

The institute could also function as a sort of consultancy. What if athletes (or team owners, or activists) could call on a corps of researchers, journalists, athletes—instead of Edwards' phone—to brainstorm ideas? That's Edwards' activist half speaking. The scholarly half will launch a "legitimate academic enterprise" fully worthy of a research university. Edwards wants to sponsor research that takes a "21st century" approach to sports, confronting issues that have been ignored with an interdisciplinary approach that calls on hard sciences, soft sciences, and even the arts.

Some questions he proposes the institute explore: Will the advance of concussion science turn the NFL into a nearly all-black league? Or consider Roe v. Wade—if courts annul women's reproductive rights, could that make colleges more hesitant to extend them sports scholarships? Take social media: Should college teams suppress players' use of Twitter and Instagram, or is that counterproductive? What does the data say?

In January, the institute kicked off with a launch event befitting Edwards' Rolodex. Speakers included Jim Brown, Tommie Smith, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, as well as younger athletes like Slaton, Boldin, and Chris Webber.

For now, though, the institute exists largely on paper. Edwards hopes it will launch by next fall semester, pending formal approval by the university. It has a 13-member board comprising athletes, university officials, and sports executives, but they haven't met yet. As for staff, Edwards is hunting for a director and assistant director to start.

The institute has no office yet, unless you count the office of Paul Lanning, a board member who's also CEO of the Tower Foundation of SJSU, the school's philanthropic organization.

"We really do occupy a space that it's difficult to say anybody else occupies. Tommie Smith and John Carlos were here," Lanning said. "There's something in the water at San Jose State that leads you to see sport as a vehicle for social change."

Lanning says the institute has secured startup funding from SJSU, but the trickier part will be finding long-term support. Lanning and Edwards are pitching the institute to philanthropists and potential corporate sponsors. They're also considering ways the institute can market its expertise, such as youth coaching or educational programs for former athletes, to support itself.

Edwards hopes the institute becomes a thriving, independent body—one that allows his own body a rest.

"I'm 74 years old. In the next ten years there's a good chance I'll be on the other side of the lawn," he said. (Lawn like grass, he clarified for this reporter.) "Then who do you call? Ghostbusters? I don't think so. I think you need something that's more institutionalized, dependable, that's going to be around."

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