HARRY EDWARDS calls his autobiography a "sports story." And so it is. But it is also much more than that, for Edwards has done more than anyone to expose and analyze what he calls "the great American sports myth" -- the media-inspired illusion that pursuing a sports career can be a way out of poverty for significant numbers of black youth. Indeed, Edwards has introduced a whole new subdiscipline of sociology -- the sociology of sport -- and he is known to most of us not as an athlete but as organizer of the campaign to boycott the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
At 6 feet, 8 inches and 240 pounds, Edwards could pass as a modern-day gladiator, but his most important contests have been fought not on athletic fields but in the media, in classrooms, at rallies and in the minds of a generation of young black athletes and students who were inspired by his commitment and by his imaginative tactics in the struggle for racial equality. He is a gladiator of the spirit, pushing aside preconceptions, exposing myths, forcing us to examine seriously what is often dismissed as "fun and games," and doing it all with wit and vitality and a sense that human struggles are not in vain. As his grandmother once told him, "Boy, there's at least one good learnin' in everything if you're smart enough to master it." Harry Edwards' "learnin'" was to be about sports -- and much more.
There are elements in his autobiography that resemble the black sports story in which the protagonist struggles mightily up out of the ghetto to sports stardom. Born and raised in the depressed "underfooting" of East St. Louis, the second of eight children, young Edwards lived in grinding poverty that eventually fractured his family: his mother left altogether, returning later for the younger children, and his father became a sporadic visitor to the delapidated house, dubbed "The Fort" ("because our backs were against the wall"), in which the family lived. After getting into organized sports in junior high school, Edwards became one of the best discus throwers in the state, but his high school experience was otherwise miserable. Moreover, he had been labeled a "problem" athlete by the white coaches because he couldn't stomach their racism, and that dashed any immediate prospects of an athletic scholarship to college. He might have become just another vacant-eyed youth holding down a corner in the ghetto, but the generous intervention of a family friend enabled him to move to California and enroll at Fresno City College. His outstanding performance with the discus at Fresno won him an athletic scholarship to San Jose State College, and he finally seemed on the way to achieving the dream of sports stardom.
But the story didn't turn out that way. To begin with, Edwards never particularly liked organized sports. It was his father who had insisted that the husky youth get involved in athletics. The elder Edwards, who himself once dreamed of becoming a successful prizefighter, fervently believed that a sports career was the way out of the ghetto and onto Easy Street, and he never let his son forget that he expected the boy to become a successful athlete. Edwards junior, however, was a loner who preferred learning to locking horns in the streets or on the playing field.
Learning, however, was at best a side-effect of his junior high school experience. The all-black junior high he attended had the atmosphere of a custodial institution where teaching and learning were all but precluded. Later, at an integrated high school, black students, especially athletes, were given the message that "we shouldn't even aspire to learn, that learning naturally just wasn't our calling." High school succeeded only in stifling his intellectual development.
Fresno City College presented the first academic challenge he'd face in years, and Edwards rediscovered his love of learning. An interest in social problems, stemming from the social decay he witnessed in East St. Louis, led him subsequently to study first social work and then sociology at San Jose State.
He also played basketball and participated in track and field events at San Jose, but his initial infatuation with the school gradually turned to disgust. What Edwards recalls most vividly about his encounter with collegiate sports are not the glorious victories but rather the paternalism and prejudice of many of the white coaches, racial conflicts with white athletes, and the blatant exploitation of black athletes by athletics departments. Added to this was the discrimination that black students routinely faced in social activities and housing.
Unable to accommodate to the racism, his athletic career gradually collapsed and he concentrated more on his academic studies. Upon his graduation in 1964, to the horror of his father, Edwards accepted a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to study at Cornell University rather than following up inquiries from pro football teams. This was the final rejection of his father's fantasy.
While at Cornell, Edwards spent his weekends in New York City, where he started attending meetings organized by Malcolm X. Malcolm's speeches and the 1965 explosion in Watts deepened his political awareness, and he began delving into the works of black writers and scholars.
After completing his MA degree, Edwards returned to San Jose to teach. He met a student named Ken Noel, a nationally ranked middle-distance runner, who shared his abhorrence of the racial discrimination encountered by black athletes and black students generally. The two, along with other students including Sandra Boze (who would later become Edwards' wife), organized a large rally to protest racism and planned to prevent the opening football game of the season from being played -- "by any means necessary." They had realized that sports was a key area of campus life in which blacks -- if organized -- could apply considerable political leverage, not just against the athletics department but against the entire college administration.
Given the pervasive interest in sports in American society and the crucial role of black athletes in many sports, Edwards and Noel felt that a black boycott of the upcoming 1968 Olympic Games would be a powerful way to focus international attention on racism in the United States. And so the Olympic Project for Human Rights -- as the boycott campaign was called -- was born. With its birth Edwards and his doughty band became targets for FBI surveillance and for harassment from people infuriated by the boycott plan. They faced enormous difficulties in organizing the project; great pressure was put on black athletes to boycott the boycott. Still, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos made their silent protest on the victory podium in Mexico City, each raising high a clinched fist, their gesture was a dramatic symbol of black resistance to racism for millions of viewers in the United States and around the world.
Doing the research for the boycott campaign provided another "learnin'" for Edwards. He came to understand the myth of sports as an easily accessible ladder of upward social mobility for blacks. Every year thousands of black youths, clinging to this myth spawned by the media, spend enormous amounts of time practicing basketball, baseball, and football, fantasizing about the hoped-for "big break" into pro sports and eschewing any serious preparation for alternate careers. Yet, as Edwards discovered, less than 2,000 blacks make a living in all of professional sports today. And blacks in collegiate sports are treated as dispensable gladiators. The great majority of black athletes on scholarship neither win a pro contract nor graduate from college. "American sports are revealed to be more a treadmill than the fabled escalator providing escape from the deprivations afflicting the black community," Edwards contends. In The Revolt of the Black Athlete and The Sociology of Sport, he analyzes this and other myths and realities surrounding blacks in sports. Though he shunned a professional sports career himself, the scholarly study of sports has become a focus of Edwards' professional work.
Returning to Cornell, Edwards completed his PhD, and as a result of pressure generated by a student strike, he was offered a position in the sociology department at the University of California at Berkeley in 1970. The Berkeley administration was not particularly happy about having Edwards on the campus. His classes were extremely popular, and he was often involved in community and campus struggles against racism. Despite his having published three books and more than 50 articles he was intially denied tenure in 1977. It required yet another protest campaign (which attracted the attention of the Soviet and Chinese press) to compel the university to reverse its denial.
Surveying the domestic and international problems confronting American society in the last chapter of the book, Harry Edwards concludes that the struggle for a just and humane society must and will continue. Given the reactionary drift of American politics and the resurgence of racist violence throughout the country, the struggle will no doubt be difficult. But Harry Edwards' autobiography can yield a "good learnin'" for all of us: Fighting for the cause of justice can be a ladder out of despair. And unlike some unfortunate others who were once active in the social movements of the 1960s, Harry Edwards is neither a casualty nor a cop-out; he is still very much in the struggle.