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Harry Edwards

Sociologist and civil rights activist, PhD in sociology from Cornell University and Professor Emeritus at the University of Berkeley

Harry Edwards

Harry Edwards was born in St. Louis, November 22, 1942,  but grew up in East St. Louis, Illinois. After an outstanding career at East St. Louis High School, he graduated in 1960 and was awarded an athletic scholarship to San Jose State University from which he graduated in 1964 with high honors. He subsequently was awarded a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship and a University Fellowship to Cornell University where he completed a M.A. and a Ph. D. in sociology. He was on the faculty of California at Berkeley from 1970-2001 and currently is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Sociology.

From 1992 through 2001, Dr. Edwards was a consulting inmate counselor at the San Francisco County Jail at San Bruno, California and periodically worked with inmate programs at California’s San Quentin State Prison.

From 2001 through 2003, Dr. Edwards was Director of the Department of Parks and Recreation for the City of Oakland, California. Dr. Edwards also has a long and storied history of activism focused upon developments at the interface of sport, race, and society. The combination of his experiences as an African-American, as an athlete in the 1960’s, and his training in the discipline of sociology led Harry to propose that by the late 1960’s America had become very complacent about the issue of race in sports. He ultimately called for a Black athlete boycott of the United States 1968 Olympic team in large part to dramatize the racial inequities and barriers confronting Blacks in sport and society. The movement resulted in demonstrations by Black athletes across the nation and ultimately at the Mexico City games – a movement commemorated by a 24-foot high statue on the campus at San Jose State University.

Years later, Dr. Edwards was to become a consultant on issues of diversity for all three major sports. He was hired by the Commissioner of Major League Baseball in 1987 to help with efforts to increase front office representation of minorities and women in baseball. He also was with the Golden State Warriors of the NBA from 1987 through 1995, specializing in player personnel recruitment and counseling. In 1986, he began work with the San Francisco 49ers in the area of player personnel counseling and programs.

The programs and methods that he developed for handling player personnel issues were adopted by the entire NFL in 1992, as was the Minority Coaches’ Internship Program developed by he and Coach Bill Walsh to increase opportunities for minority coaches in the NFL. Over his career, Harry Edwards has persisted in efforts to compel the sports establishment to confront and to effectively address issues pertaining to diversity and equal opportunity within its ranks. Edwards, a scholar-activist who became spokesperson for what amounted to a revolution in sports, is now considered the leading authority on developments at the interface of race, sport, and society and was a pioneering scholar in the founding of the sociology of sport as an academic discipline.

Dr. Edwards’ career-long dedication to teaching and education has been memorialized with the establishment of the “Dr. Harry Edwards Follow Your Bliss Award” by the San Francisco Forty Niners Professional Football Organization to honor outstanding teachers. He is also a 2018 inductee into the “Academic All-America Hall of Fame”.

Dr. Edwards has been a consultant with producers of sports related programs for numerous television and film productions in the United States and abroad over the last 40 years. He has received dozens of awards and honors, including several honorary doctorate degrees and has been honored by the University of Texas which has established the “Dr. Harry Edwards Lectures”, a permanent series of invited lectures on themes related to sport and society. He has written scores of articles and four books: The Struggle That Must Be, Sociology of Sports, Black Students, The Revolt of the Black Athlete.


«Sport inevitably, unavoidably recapitulates society, the character of its human and institutional relationships, and the ideological and value sentiments rationalizing and justifying those relationships»

“Sport inevitably, unavoidably recapitulates society, the character of its human and institutional relationships,  and the ideological and value sentiments rationalizing and justifying those relationships”. In my 1971 Cornell University dissertation, I termed this  “The First Principle of the Sociology of Sport”.

From this principle, it follows that ideological and value conflicts and contradictions under contention in a  society would come to be expressed in some degree and measure in its sports. And where there are active movements provoked by conditions imposed upon a party to ideologically framed and fueled conflicts , those  conflicts – whether over race, class, gender, religion, or political ideology itself –  will come also to be recapitulated in sports.

At core, much of the political expression in sport related to conditions extant in and shared with the broader society are struggles for “definitional authority” – struggles to establish the legitimacy of a groups definitions of the situation.

In America, for example, Black people have never been broadly perceived by mainstream interests to be creditable witnesses to their own experiences, outcomes, or e realities. This is an enduring situation dating back to Black enslavement when the White slave master said, “My slaves are happy!” and those enslaved said “We want to be free!” – and carried out over 300 violent slave revolts to prove it, largely to no avail. Today such definitional conflicts have been and still are expressed in connection with, for example – among other issues – whose version of police violence is authoritative, the camera phone captured murder of George Floyd under cover  of the badge notwithstanding.

Football player Colin Kaepernick’s protest against such violence and his banishment from the National Football League (NFL) was only a modern instance of an effort to squelch Black definitional legitimacy, an effort that the mainstream media has always been a conscious party in propagating. Going back to the post-Civil war year through the turn of the 20th Century, even  positive characterizations and projections of Black athlete performance were eschewed by the mainstream media  (as in the case of Jack Johnson’s 1908 knock out of Tommie Burns  or Eddie Tolan’s two gold medal performance in the 1932 Olympics,  or even  Jesse Owens’ four gold medal performance in the 1936 Berlin Games beyond its utility in anti-Nazi pre-WWII propaganda; still neither Tolan’s nor Owens’ championship performances at the time were shown in American theaters along with the performances of White Olympic medal winners-lest Black Americans be provoked to dangerous delusions of equality, if not superiority). On  the other hand, when they were not completely ignored, Black sports performances were sometimes interpreted in the mainstream media as “instinctive, animalístic”, if not – as in the case of both Jack Johnson and 27 years later – Joe Louis  interpreted as mindless “savage” behavior.

The rise of modern mass communications technology and the mainstream’s inability to manage and control  it has “leveled the definitional playing field” to an unprecedented degree. Athletes  and other activists in the definitional struggle are no longer dependent upon the mainstream media to frame and project their actions and definitions of their situation – just as sure as the killer of George Floyd is in prison today because a 17 year old Black teenager filmed what amounted to murder under cover of the badge – an all too common scenario that Black people had protested for generations and that mainstream society and media had by definitional authority  vehemently denied.

This presentation will explore the ramifications and impact of modern media technology for activism in sport and compare it to past challenges facing activists and my own experiences in organizing and implementing the goals of the “Olympic Project for  Human Rights”  over half a century ago.