harry edwards is not who you think he is

words & photography: Jai Lennard

Dr. Harry Edwards stands tall for a man in his mid-seventies, but his neck stoops slightly, likely from always looking over people. He is fit, built like a tree trunk, and his voice seems to come from deep beneath the earth (think James Earl Jones, but less Southern and more Southern California). Edwards keeps his hands clasped on the table in front of him when we talk, choosing his words carefully even as a “bruh” slips in here and there. His vibe is part head coach, part Atlas, and because he always wears black, including his nearly opaque sunglasses, part radical.


For more than three decades, Edwards has been a professor at the University of California, Berkeley while consulting for multiple major sports teams, including the San Francisco 49ers and the Golden State Warriors. If you watched the NFL during the 1980s and ’90s, you probably recognize his face. You likely assumed he was an assistant coach or defensive coordinator; he was always at the side of legendary 49ers coach Bill Walsh during his dynastic run of six division titles and three Super Bowls. But Dr Edwards, whose official title was Consultant of Organizational and Personal Player Development, wasn’t drawing up Xs and Os.


For over fifty years, Edwards has been more like a career life coach for athletes, guiding pivotal public and private conversations about fundamental human rights, the role of activism in sports and the way players engage with the political mainstream. In 1967, he founded the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) while a professor at San Jose State, where John Carlos and Tommie Smith were students. Initially, the plan was to rally support for a mass athlete boycott. OPHR challenged the Olympics to stand up for their supposed ideals, which in theory aligned with those of many people fighting for peace and justice around the world.


“We were fighting apartheid in this country,” Edwards says. “We were siding with Africa and with the black African countries. The U.S., Britain, Israel, and much of Europe had defended apartheid in saying, ‘[By] engaging them in the Olympic Games, we are showing them an alternative path. We can show them what we can do together.’ Yeah, there’s an argument for that, but why are we indulging these racist, malignant degenerates in sports, when the Olympic Charter itself says that discrimination in terms of who can or cannot participate is banned?”

OPHR demanded  the removal of South Africa and Rhodesia from the Games in protest of apartheid; the reinstatement of Muhammad Ali's world heavyweight boxing title, which he had been stripped of the year before; the general consideration of more black coaches; and the removal of Avery Brundage—who had a long history of white-supremacist and misogynist actions and speech in his official positions within Olympic organizations dating back to the 1930s—from the position of International Olympic Committee President. The athletes who rallied in support did so despite fearing for both their careers and their lives. At the time, tensions were running high in both America and Mexico. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been  assassinated April 4, 1968 and then just months later, ten days before the opening ceremony in Mexico City, hundreds of students protesting the country’s oppressive regime were murdered by the Mexican army.


Against this backdrop, many athletes withdrew support for the boycott. The OPHR carried on and Carlos and Smith raised their fists. And although it’s hard to see in the photograph from that day, Peter Norman, the Australian who won silver in their race, wore an OPHR button on his track jacket. The day after, newspapers around the world carried this image on their front pages, and, according to Edwards, when word reached Nelson Mandela in his jail cell on Robben Island, South Africa, he asked for one of the organization’s posters to be smuggled to him as a reminder that he was not alone in his fight for freedom.The backlash against the OPHR was immediate. Carlos and Smith were sent home and the Olympians were roundly denounced in the mainstream culture as anti-American.


Edwards was tailed by the FBI for years but didn’t truly feel the weight of the government until he was denied tenure at the University of California. Despite publishing more than anyone in his department, having the largest classes, creating a new discipline in his field, and being the forefront expert on the Sociology of Sport, the University denied him job security and  legitimacy among his peers and colleagues.


“When we got into our [Freedom of Information Act] request, we found out there were more than 3000 pages,” he says. They [the FBI] had the Sociology of Sport in there. They had my dissertation in there—the copy of my dissertation is still missing from the library of Cornell University. They had notes from my classes here at SJSU. They had notes from my classes at UC Berkeley. They had conversations that I knew that we had in the [academic] offices.


Edwards dug deeper and learned that since the Fall of 1967, he had been on the FBI’s ADEX list, which J. Edgar Hoover had decided to handle personally. The list, which lasted 1971 through 1978, indexed individuals who were deemed dangerous to the state. Edwards had been labeled anti-American and more, a revolutionary.


“And that’s when I determined that if they’re shooting down Black Panthers in the street, then we should all sign up and become Black Panthers, and I’m going to be one of the first to do it,” Edwards says. “In the same sense that if today, they start registering Muslims in American society, then I’m going down to register as a Muslim. Because if they come for Muslims today, they’ll come for me tomorrow. We may as well get to the front of the line and deal with this.”


Colin Kaepernick, who has been mentored by Edwards, has used sports to spearhead a conversation on civil rights, patriotism, and social justice.  And Trump, his antagonist, has followed Nixon’s rhetorical blueprint; MAGA’s “great” is the present-day equivalent of Nixon’s “law and order”—in spite of the lowest crime rates in 50 years. Edwards sees  athlete activism as occurring in “waves.” With Kaepernick, “we have reached the fourth wave of Athlete activism.”


This past January, I crouched backstage in the dark snapping photos of Edwards as he glanced over his notes, preparing to moderate a star-studded panel of athletes at the Town Hall Meeting for the Institute for the Study of Sport, Society and Social Change at SJSU. Founded by the Tower Foundation in collaboration with SJSU and Dr. Edwards, the Institute serves as a beacon for education, research and analysis focused on the developments at the intersection of sport and society. After an ESPN-produced intro  that commemorated  Edwards’s time with the Niners and Bill Walsh, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jim Brown, Chris Webber, Takeo Spikes, Anquan Boldin, and Tommie Smith convened to discuss sports and activism.


In front of the full auditorium they discussed a variety of topics: the dangers of being a professional athlete, the cost of speaking one’s mind, what athletic responsibility looked like in the community, and what it means to support of female athletes. The generation-spanning group, had been selected for their willingness to speak out, but all went silent whenever Edwards spoke. All the while, just a short walk away from the event was a 23-foot statue of John Carlos and Tommie Smith on the Olympic podium, posed just as they had been 50 years prior in Mexico City. This monument, erected in 2005, is a testament to how long it’s taken for San Jose State, who gave no aid publicly or privately to the the exiled Olympians, to come around.



But if history has judged Edwards kindly, the present has been hostile to those carrying on his work. Edwards, now an elder statesman, continues to work to facilitate discussions and address concerns, even if it means reaching out to Roger Goodell himself. In an email to the NFL commissioner back in June, written one  month before the start of the season, he listed the  offenses committed by players, staff, coaches, and owners—all of whom are still within the league. He holds nothing back and even uses all caps to express his explicit concern.


“[Kaepernick] . . .faces the prospect of  EXILE for an action that violated NO League regulation and NO law . . . exercising his CONSTITUTIONALLY GUARANTEED RIGHT to freedom of expression by "taking knee" on the sideline in dignified, non-violent support  of his message that  "America is BETTER than the  police shooting to death each year an average of 147 MOSTLY UNARMED (71%) Black men, women, and children with virtual impunity . . .”


Dr. Edwards  loves the game but also cares deeply for the people who play it. And many of those players who have been silent for the past year, fearful of suffering Kaepernick's fate have now spoken out against the league’s dismissal of Kaepernick.  The Broncos, New England Patriots, Miami  Dolphins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Baltimore Ravens, and others have taken a knee or linked arms not only in solidarity with Kaepernick but against the violence that he ultimately wanted to put a focus on.


In a recent statement to the press Edwards went on to note that the league would have to shift in response to the protests and Trump’s rhetoric. “If they do not agree with Trump’s Alabama statements, they in effect will be separating themselves from both him and his alt-right constituency, Edwards writes. “This sort of ‘lose-lose outcome option’, even for his supporting friends, has become a Trump ‘brand feature.’ The NFL owners who donated millions to his campaign and publicly supported him are simply the latest to learn the hard way that with a friend like Trump, who needs adversaries and enemies”.


Edwards says that he knew all along how the Kaepernick saga would go down—and has done everything in his power to prevent the blowback and, so far unsuccessfully, tried to help Kaepernick keep his NFL career alive. “I’d seen that same scenario play out nearly fifty years ago when the ‘sports establishment’ turned Ali into a ‘martyr’ for the anti-war and civil rights movement, the most celebrated athlete of the last half 20th century, and the most recognizable human on Earth. Colin Kaepernick is this era of athlete activism’s Ali.” Edwards is similarly unsurprised by Trump’s reaction to Kaepernick and other politically vocal athletes, which is straight out of the Nixon playbook—if more unhinged than Tricky Dick ever was in public. He seems amused by Trump’s sloppiness, unnerved by his abandon. 


“Trump is by far the most anti-democratic, inflammatory, and unhinged personality ever to occupy the oval office. To now add Steph Curry and the World Champion Warriors, and all of the protesting athletes—and call their mother’s SOB’s—to to his pantheon of virtually all Black political targets in sports is not only short sighted on Trump’s part, but characteristically IMPULSIVE, PRECIPITOUS, and STUPID.”


This country was not founded on the premise that all men are created equal; our history shows that. African-American’s have been targeted and are the victims of police violence on a daily basis and their incarceration rate is unconscionable. While Kaepernick’s fight is just beginning and Dr. Edwards’ carries on, he reminds us that the fight for equality in sports is not just on the field but off as well. On the sidelines and behind the bleachers are coaches, recruits, staff, executives, owners and more who can pave way to opportunity for all in which sport is merely the vehicle to success. Edward’s legacy, while already astounding, it is still being written. “Peace on earth is not just a noble statement,” he says “—it is already a survival imperative.”