"Coming back is problematic" — Dr. Harry Edwards on sports returning

Aaron Rose

Dr. Harry Edwards is no stranger to protests.

He was there in the 1960s, as a member of the Black Panther Party protesting after the death of Bobby Hutton, a 17-year-old unarmed Black boy killed by Oakland police in 1968. That same year he organized the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), urging Black athletes to boycott the 1968 Mexico Olympics to protest racial segregation.

When John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists atop the 200-meter Olympic podium in Mexico, they wore OPHR badges.

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The 77-year-old sociology professor at the University of California, Berkeley can easily recount every wave of Black athlete activism over the last 150 years.

"Going back to Major Taylor, who was a world-class cyclist in 1896," he says, beginning to rattle off the names of Black activists throughout American history from Jesse Owens to Colin Kaepernick.

Today he sees what he calls the "fifth wave" of Black athlete activism, following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on May 25. On one hand, he's been impressed by the protests and the responses he's seen from Black athletes.

"I believe that this is going to turn out differently than it has in the past," he said.

He doesn't think the possibility of the NBA returning will quiet the protesting and he expects to see players either boycott or demonstrate if the season returns.

"I'm not particularly concerned about the disparity between say Kyrie (Irving) and LeBron (James) in terms of this split among NBA athletes," he said. "Either way, I think they're going to manage to make the statement that they want to make."

However, he's also concerned. He — like the group of NBA players headed most notably by Irving — is worried about the safety and viability of the NBA returning while COVID-19 continues to spread and disproportionately affect Black communities.

"Coming back is problematic," he said. "I’m more concerned about the impact of trying to return to some semblance of normal in a situation where normalcy, by definition under these circumstances, is highly toxic."

Edwards says he's had dozens of conversations with coaches, players general managers, and owners from across the sporting world, all of whom have come asking for his advice on the viability of returning to sports this year. His answer to them has been simple: It's not safe.

To him, sports represent society, and in a world where Black communities are being affected the most by the virus, the optics of having predominantly Black athletes risking their lives to entertain the masses is "horrible."

"I will guarantee you that when the infections come, and God forbid that there will be death, they will be inordinately Black," he said.

But Edwards is also a realist. He understands that these decisions are being driven by money. There are billions of dollars on the line if sports don't return this year and so Edwards is worried. He's worried that the protests he's expecting to see if the NBA returns this year will be drowned out by the potential risks of the virus.

"Anything that they might say would be secondary at best," he said.

Ultimately, Edwards knows that these sports leagues are not in the business of social change, and if real change is going to come it's going to have to be from political leaders.

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