The Decline of the Black Athlete:An Online Exclusive: Extended Interview with Harry Edwards

Race, Gender, & Sports

By David Leonard Apr 20, 2000

Harry Edwards says the golden age of black athleticism is over. Is he serious? ColorLines staffer David Leonard does the asking.

After three decades years in the spotlight, as sociology professor at the University of California, and as a consultant to the San Francisco 49ers, Dr. Harry Edwards remains one of the premier activists in sports. ColorLines last spoke to Dr. Edwards on his role in organizing the "Revolt of the Black Athlete" at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968 (ColorLines, Vol. 1, No. 1).

On October 26, 1999, I sat down with Dr. Edwards at his Berkeley office. Dr. Edwards is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and a consultant for the San Francisco 49ers, who has written extensively on issues of sports and society.

More than that, Edwards continues to be an activist within the sports world. And his role as a teacher is not limited to the classroom. After a long day of teaching, Edwards took the time, before our late interview, to counsel a player about his future in sports.

Lately, Dr. Edwards has been engaging another heated debate over the role of athletics in the black community. While black athletes have never been more visible or more culturally influential, Edwards now advances the provocative thesis that the "golden age" of black athletes is over. ColorLines recently asked Edwards exactly what he means. Is he out of touch or on point? You decide.

CL: In the last year many people have spoke about America’s love affair with the women’s world cup team as an example of America’s, and the sports world’s, advancement in terms of gender issues. How much progress do you see?

HE: Progress is a very, very difficult concept to quantify. It is very difficult to measure qualitatively, in terms of the reception that a team, such as the women’s soccer team got. In examining progress you realize how complex the entity really is. I think that one needs to look beyond the sited reception to other things to get some indication.

So when we look at the women’s soccer team, we, first of all, see that the team was projected as an all-American, family-oriented team, which was a sideways suggestion that the team was not about those lesbians. It was also projected as a substantially "white-girl-next-door" team, which was again, as one person stated outright, to provide an example to counter the bad behavior of men in men’s sports, which is to say black men in particular. They are looking at the Lawrence Phillips’, Dennis Rodmans’, O.J Simpsons’, Jim Browns’ and quote countering that image. Neither the all-American girl team, nor the "white-girl-next-door" has anything to do with women’s sports.

In other words, the reception at those levels was not a reception for the women’s soccer team, but a reception revolving around the utility of the women’s soccer team by those who would keep things pretty much the way they are. And of course this is evidenced in the kinds of endorsements some members of the team received following the World Cup. You had, for example, soccer Barbie, which is one of the most sexist images in American society. The soccer Barbie thing was indicative of the utility of the women’s world cup team for conservative propaganda interests. Then, of course, the athletic bra endorsement that Brandi Chastain got was again indicative of the maintenance of traditional images of women. It would be the equivalent of giving Sammy Sosa or Mark McGwire the Jockey jock strap endorsement, indicative of masculine and masculine sexual focus. The athletic bra endorsement was again about keeping women essentially subjugated.

CL: A student of mine wrote a paper in which he juxtaposed the image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos in 1968 versus that of Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan during the 1992 Olympics–the raised black fist compared to a draping America flag strategically placed to cover up a Reebok label on their sweatsuits. What do these opposing images say about the last thirty years of black sports participation?

HE: It says that black athletes have become sufficiently integrated into the sports system. They have a stake in all of the business dimensions of that system. Thirty years ago there would not have been any issue of them covering the Reebok slogan because they would not have had the Nike contract that was in conflict with it. That would have gone to a white athlete. So what this change tells me is that black athletes are sufficiently integrated into the business matrix of sports. That there is something there, a business interest, which they feel obliged to protect. Thirty years ago that was not the case. We are talking about different times.

CL: In a number of spaces you have argued that we are currently witnessing the end of the "golden age of black sports participation." Why the "golden era" in sports for black athletic participation coming to an end?

HE: By the time we finish looking at the last thirty years, through societal processes, through institutional erosion, through the degradation of the black athletic pool, through disqualification, judicial procedures and deaths, we have so emaciated the talent pool, that we are beginning to see a dropoff in performance at every level, in all sports where blacks participate in numbers. We are simply disqualifying, jailing, burying, and leaving behind our black athletes, right along with our potential black doctors, black lawyers, and so forth.

So as we look at high school sports, an increasing number of high schools cannot even field a team. Last year in San Francisco there were three high schools that could not field a football team. A number of years ago, Richmond High, which was one of the great schools to produce athletes out of the bay area, had five people try out for the football team. Even if they have enough players, they often times cannot afford to put a team on the field.

You look at boxing and the same things are happening. I remember when you had Ali, Frazier, Ernie Shavers, Ernie Terrell, George Foreman, Floyd Patterson, Buster Mathis, and Sonny Liston. These were just the people who were the acknowledged contenders. Now, you have Evander Holyfield, basically a puffed-up cruiser weight, and Mike Tyson, who spends more time in trouble out of the ring, when he is not getting in trouble in the ring. Where are the boxers? The boxers are in the cemetery, the boxers are in jail, the boxers are in gangs, and the boxers are on the street. That is where the potential football, basketball, and baseball players are as well.

The talent pool in the black community has been so eroded that when you have a sport that is eighty percent black, like the NFL, or eighty eight percent, like the NBA, the fallout is going to show up. If you look at the basketball this situation becomes crystal clear. In 1990 twentyseven out of twenty nine teams averaged over one hundred points. In 1997 only four teams averaged more than 100 points, and last year only team, the Sacramento Kings, was able to average this amount. Every statistic is down. You look at the collegiate level and you will see the same statistical decline. In every statistical category the performance standards are down: freethrow average, points per game, rebound average, assist average.

Why? You just don’t have as great an athlete today. We are jailing, burying and disqualifying our potential point guards, wide-receivers, running backs, power forwards, centers, and so forth, at a very early age. If we look at it historically, literally from 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke into the major leagues, to 1997, fifty years marked the golden age of the black athlete, the age of sports participation. Blacks dominated boxing, basketball, football, track, and even baseball; all sports they participated in high numbers. Now we are seeing a precipitous dropoff and the reasons are not inside sport, but the reasons in society, which are ultimately reflective in sport.

CL: So what will the next thirty years look like?

HE: I think over the next thirty years we are going to continue to see a decline of black athletic participation. I think we are also going to see more importantly a phenomenal split within the black community, as a consequence of that. The black middleclass moving on to become doctors, lawyers, and engineers. The black masses, in traditional black communities, not moving at all. Being left behind and increasingly in the twentyfirst century living an early twentieth century existence. That is going to be a particularly explosive situation.

The overwhelming majority of black athletes come out of the lower echelons of black society. I don’t think it is accidental when you look at the inordinate number of blacks in jail and the proportionate number of blacks not on athletic teams. You are essentially looking at the same guy. They both have numbers; they are both in uniforms, and they both belong to gangs. They only call one the Crips, or the Bloods, while they call the other team the 49ers, Warriors, As, or the Giants. They are all in pursuit of respect. They all, at one level or another, keep score. The parallels are all there. It is the same guy.

But I think what you are looking at over the next thirty years is that the guy in the jail uniform is going to outstrip, in both numbers and impact, the guy in the athletic uniform. I think the next thirty years is going to see that kind of transformation. We are going to be looking at the same guy, but only increasingly he is going to be wearing a jailhouse number, a jailhouse uniform, instead of a sports team number, and an athletic uniform.

CL: So might the twenty-first century be the "Golden Age" of white athletics or the "Golden Age" of Latino athletics?

HE: I think that ultimately the twentyfirst century will be a global sports age. The world is so small and sports is so international that I think you are going to see the same thing in American sports that you see in basketball and baseball today, with some differences. Basketball is increasingly recruiting from overseas. So you look at people coming from Eastern Europe, Africa and other parts of the world, you see the future of sports. Right now, forty percent of major league baseball players are foreign born. We are going to see more and more of that. Whites are not just going to fill slots because blacks are not there. So, overwhelmingly, you are going to be looking at American sports that are inordinately participated in by foreign-born athletes.

More generally, I believe sports are going to change. They are going to take on the hype of wrestling to cover the lack of quality of performance. I think you are going to get sports hyped more and more as a business, and less and less as a performance craft. So you will have lesser athletes in there, along with a few rules changes to keep scoring up, but you won’t see the caliber of players you saw in the past. You will still have the hitting, the dunks, but most importantly you will have the games being hyped, rules being changed, so that points keep going up, and the fans keep watching the games, and the money keeps rolling in.

CL: Last year, Sports Illustrated featured a cover story of "What Ever Happened to the White Athlete?" Do you know what has happened to the white athlete?

HE: Well, the white athlete over the last fifty years has simply been displaced by a pool of largely untapped athletic talent, generated by a lack of alternative highprestige occupational opportunities for masses of young black males, and increasing females. I think that once this untapped pool of talent had access to three or four sports it was inevitable that ultimately blacks would end up representing disproportionately high numbers. That is what happen to the white athlete in basketball, football, track, not field, boxing and to a certain extent in baseball.

But in ninety-five percent of American sports the white athlete is there in numbers and dominant. The white athlete is there in swimming. The white athlete is there in diving. The white athlete is there in water polo. The white athlete is there in golf. The white athlete is there in tennis. The white athlete is there in badminton. The white athlete is there in auto racing. The white athlete is there in horse racing. The white athlete is there in soccer, walking, gymnastics, and all the winter sports in dominant numbers. What happened to the white athlete? The white athlete is there, except in those three, four, or five sports where blacks have had access.

The other thing that has happened is that blacks have changed the nature of some sports. Black culture, isolated from white society, from slavery right up to integration, developed styles of playing basketball, football, baseball, and boxing, that whites had to learn to accommodate to or get out of the sport. So if you’d brought in a point guard, who dribbled the ball through his legs, and passed the ball behind this back, you better have a guy to guard him. Otherwise you were at a severe disadvantage. What this generally meant was going into the black community to get someone who had played that kind of ball. Finally, whites have access to the full spectrum of sports, and the full spectrum of highprestige occupational positions. They are not channeled into sports in disproportionately high numbers, and that white talent for sports is spread out across all occupations, and across all sports. Well, blacks don’t typically have those same opportunities.

CL: Several years ago you argued that the black community’s "singled-minded pursuit of sports" represented a severe problem within the black community. Looking back on this argument, do you still maintain this position, or have you changed your views on black athletic participation?

HE: There is still, thank God, a disproportionately high emphasis on sports achievement in black society, relative to other highprestige occupational career aspirations. Given what is happening to young black people, who have essentially disconnected from virtually every institutional structure in society, sports may be our last hook and handle. They are unemployed, in disproportionately high numbers, and increasingly they are unemployable. They dropout of school in disproportionately high numbers, and now they are not just uneducated and miseducated, but often times diseducated. They have disengaged even from the black church. They are affiliated with the gangs, not the church. The street is their temple; the gang leader is their pastor. They don’t seek the respect of anybody but each other. But they still want to "be like Mike."

That sports emphasis gives us a hook and a handle on them. Through midnight basketball, through Saturday football, or recreational facilities, we can put them back in contact with the clergy, mentors, health workers, counselors, government workers, with people from the economic and corporate sector. Without that we have no way of getting them at all, except through police and judicial action.

I still maintain that there is a high and inordinate emphasis on sports in the black community. That emphasis has been transmuted, however, by the processes of the "end of the golden age of black athletics" from a liability to a virtue, in a sense that it may provide us with the last hook and handle that we have on a substantial proportion of this generation of young black people.

CL: So you disagree with John Hoberman, who in his book Darwin’s Athletes, argues that blacks should get out of sports, because such a singledminded pursuit of sports has historically hurt the black community, while fueling societal racism?

HE: Yes! Darwin’s Athletes is the classic case of intellectually picking up the ball and running the wrong way. You can not look at sport, where a certain level of opportunity has been opened up, and say that because of the racist spin that white society, and white culture, puts on achievement in that arena, that blacks should desist, not just from valuing that sports participation, from idealizing the people who participate in sports, but that we should get out of it all together. To say that blacks should not be involved in the numbers that we are, and put that emphasis on sports that we have, because of a racist interpretation that whites have put on that, is like saying, A, whites have cancer, therefore, lets, treat, B, black folks. The emphasis should be upon why it is that white society has to put that racist emphasis upon black sports achievement, and secondly why is the achievement limited to sports in disproportionately high numbers, and not at least representative across the full spectrum of highprestige occupational categories. These are the issues that Hoberman should have been dealing with.

CL: As we approach the twenty-first century, what do you think will be the greatest challenge in sports over the next hundred years?

HE: Sports always recapitulates society, in terms of its character, dynamics, and the structure of human relations. Just as I believe emphatically that the challenge of the twentyfirst century will be diversity in all of its guises, the challenge in sports in the twentyfirst century is going to be diversity. We are going to be looking at circumstances where we cannot separate out race, from class, gender, sexuality, technoclass status or age.

I worry about what it going to happen to this society. We are already in a situation where we are expecting children to play games that they cannot afford to watch. They, especially the classes that generate the athletes, can’t afford the ticket to get into the stadium; they can’t afford money for the payperview. And who are the people that are the driving forces behind the teams: the children of the sixties. They are the ones who own the teams, who run the media, who establish the standards of what is going to cost what. Even as we attack them, we continue to expect them to be the athletes on our teams. Even as we jail them, even as we disqualify them from schools, even as we revoke the social services that support them, even as we eliminate the affirmative action that brings them to college campuses, we still want them to be on our teams. So as we look at the situation it becomes very, very clear that we are headed for a set of crises, all of which revolve around diversity in sports, just as in society.