Harry Edwards on sports: ‘The normal will never be again’


Art Spander

He is the man to credit. Or blame. For Tommie Smith and John Carlos and their black-gloved salute. For Colin Kaepernick coming to his knees. For the willingness of African-American athletes over the past half century to let us know a system’s imperfections.

Dr. Harry Edwards is 77 now, a bit less active but no less involved. What’s happening in sports, the protests, the confessions, the promises of changes for the better, are mostly because of Edwards.

The movement was bigger than one aspect of society, bigger than one man. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was instrumental. So were the murders of so many blacks.

However, it was written that the Olympic Project for Human Rights, established by Edwards in 1967 at San Jose State, “was the spark that lit the match for global recognition of equality.”

Edwards had been a discus thrower. He became an advocate.

“We must not allow the sports world to pat itself on the back as a citadel of racial justice,” it was written into the founding statement, “when the racial injustices of the sports industry are famously legendary.”

Now it is 53 years later. NFL players are expressing their views in a video. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on another video is apologizing “for not listening” to player protests about the death of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

Edwards, from his East Bay home, watches, listens and — to dozens of media outlets around the globe, among them Germany, South Africa, Latin America — offers commentary created from decades of experience and doubt.

“Once you step off the curb,” said Edwards, in an almost literal reference to those marching to support Black Lives Matter, “there’s no stepping back to where you were. Something has changed.

“There are so many people because of the confluence of the pandemic keeping people home and Floyd’s death. Also, a hurricane.”

Edwards was despised, persuading some athletes — notably basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, still an amateur and still known as Lew Alcindor — not to compete in the ’68 Mexico City Olympics.

But the Games became historic when, after alighting the medal podium for the 200 meters, Tommie Smith, who won, and John Carlos, who finished third, raised black-gloved hands during the Star-Spangled Banner.

There’s a statue to the two on the campus at San Jose State, where they went to school.

Edwards hopes for another sort of award for Kaepernick — who first took a knee during the national anthem in 2016, when he was a quarterback with the 49ers.

“I think Colin and George should be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize,” said Edwards. “Look at what they have inspired. Like Dr. King or Barack Obama. They were fighters for equality.”

Serving as an adviser to the 49ers when four years ago Kaepernick first took a knee, Edwards sensed the importance of the moment, grabbing the player’s cleats and jersey and shipping them to the Smithsonian.

Edwards spoke of Muhammad Ali, a fighter in more than one sense of the word, and an eternal symbol for African-Americans. Ali had his heavyweight title taken by boxing officials when he refused to be inducted in the armed forces.

Years go by, generations, attitudes and perceptions are altered. Ali, once was disliked by whites, would become so revered that he was chosen to light the torch at the ’96 Olympics in Atlanta.

We’ve been witnessing upheaval, adaptation. The future is unpredictable, other than it will be different from the past, which is exactly what the NFL players this week and Harry Edwards for many weeks have wished.

“The normal,” said Edwards, "will never be again.”

Until there’s a new normal. Which, considering everything in the rearview mirror, might be exactly what we need.