‘We have an obligation to fight this madness’ — Dave Zirin speaks to athlete-activist advisor Harry Edwards

Dr Harry Edwards.
Thursday, November 24, 2016

This year has seen a remarkable renaissance of star athletes in the United States for the first time since the 1960s and ’70s using their hyper-exalted platform to speak about politics.

One person who can speak about these eras like no one else is legendary sports sociologist Dr Harry Edwards, who played a role in advising activist athletes from Muhammad Ali to Colin Kaepernick.

Radical sports writer Dave Zirin spoke to Edwards about the landscape for activist athletes in the age of Donald Trump. The interview below is abridged from Zirin’s Edge of Sports website.

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What are your impressions of the election results?

I’m neither surprised nor chagrined at the outcome. The media in this country did not expose Trump because they never attacked him straight on, in terms of his racist, misogynistic, xenophobic policies.

They gave him free time. Billions of dollars’ worth of free time. They didn’t expose him; they showcased him.

And then, when I look at what was happening in American society, with Black men, women and children being shot down by police officers and nobody going to jail … I never deluded myself into thinking that somehow we were in some post-racial America.

Yes, a lot of people were also simply turned off by the degeneracy of the process, they didn’t see anybody that they could vote for who could make a difference. The issue, now, for me, is what do we do about it? And at one level, it’s crystal clear that this situation can no longer be denied and we have to go to work.

Given how degenerate this whole election process has been, how do you think the Trump victory is going to affect the mood, the momentum, of what we’ve seen in terms of these athlete activists?

I think it’s going to accelerate it. The media will run a whole bunch of Black Uncle Tom Trump sycophants across the stage to try to explain how what he intends to do or might do is in the best interest of Black people in the Black community.

I think that they should be dismissed out of hand. The so-called Black Christian preachers who so publicly supported Trump, these handkerchief-head Jesus pimps should be dismissed out of hand. They will run across the stage to criticise athletes, to criticise other Black people and they should be dismissed.

All of that is going to boil up. But I think that athletes are going to continue to speak out. I think we’re going to get many more women athletes involved if Trump does what he says he’s going to do, in terms of Roe versus Wade.

This thing is going to ricochet throughout sports and I think that athletes will respond. I think we’re looking at an escalation in terms of athlete responses to this systematic racism and most certainly to the misogynistic racist that a majority white population has put into the White House.

What’s the mood of the players that you’re talking to?

The players that I have spoken with have been trying to figure out a way to express themselves and to anticipate what they might have to deal with as protests inevitably break out in their communities as well as on their campuses.

And suppose the students on the campus begin to organise and demonstrate around issues that impact them personally, both on the campus and in the community, and determine that the athletes have a role to play in that.

How do we take that stand and stay unified as a team? Suppose it does come down to a threat of a boycott — are we all together? Is it a matter of democratic vote?

Is it a matter of demographic vulnerability? If you’re an African American, do you have any obligation to consider what the white players on the team think? Especially in cases where so many of them were Trump supporters.

All of that has been discussed. They are already considering those issues and these are difficult problems for 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds to wrestle with. They are undertaking that challenge on the campuses and most certainly in the professional sports ranks.

When you have no choice, the odds and the circumstances don’t matter. It’s like taking your next breath. You have no choice.

Whether you wanted to get up this morning, whether you were feeling good, bad, whether you’ve had your coffee or not, you have no choice but to take that next breath. Under these circumstances that we’re confronted with today, we have no choice.

We are confronted with some possibilities that are unprecedented in American history with very few examples.

When this man starts talking about loading up the buses and cattle cars and shipping 11 million immigrants and Latinos across the border into Mexico, we’re back to the Japanese internment camps.

We’re back to the removal of Native Americans from their homelands to what, essentially, were concentration camps where they died by the hundreds of thousands.

We have to begin to think about what we’re going to do. If you’ve ever wondered what you would do in 1930s Germany, I’m afraid that you’re going to get a chance to find out.

All of these issues are out there, not to speak of the circumstances of women, the circumstances of Muslims. Is he really going to have a religious test to allow Muslims to come into this country? ISIS must be licking their chops for that to get underway.

Those are issues that we all now have to wrestle with out front. There’s no way to hide what is going on or what the potential outcomes could be.

I’ve defended Colin Kaepernick from some of the criticism he’s received for not voting, but as someone who’s worked with Colin and is connected to the 49ers’ organisation, I’d love to have your thoughts about what he’s said about this election.

I talk to Kaep two or three times a week and one of the things I’ve stated [for voting] is that if for no other reason, then you have so many oppositional interests who are trying to suppress the vote. You have so many people who died to secure the vote.

If anybody in society knows how rigged these elections can be, it’s Black people. I mean, at one point we couldn’t vote, then when we were able to vote, the districts were gerrymandered so our vote didn’t count for nearly what they should’ve counted for, and now we’re dealing with voter suppression that is systematic and from the top.

We know about rigged elections, but at the same time we must utilise every arrow that we have in our quiver, no matter how small or how short distance they may be geared to go.

In some of my darker moments, I’ve turned to Muhammad Ali, his example, what he would have said at a given moment. What does Ali have to teach us in the era of Trump?

I think that Ali — along with a number of other outstanding black athletes — Jackie Robinson, in his last days, who said “I never had it made and, I’m sorry, I can’t stand for either the national anthem or to say the Pledge of Allegiance” — they teach us that ultimately, it’s not the odds that are against you, it’s the magnitude of your courage and the calibre of your commitment that should guide and drive your actions and perspectives.

We have an obligation at every level to organise, to mobilise, to establish coalitions to fight this madness. We have an obligation to begin to organise against the impact of this on our communities, our colleges and universities, on our lives.

That is what Ali teaches us, irrespective of the personal and individual cost. Why? Because we have no option.

These are troubled times. What do you do for your mental wellness when, especially, things are this hot?

Well, first of all, I read. Malcolm X said that reading and studying are the activities that best reward effort.

If I were talking to a person today, I would tell them to go online and read articles by two of my proteges and former students, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and David Leonard. Read Kareem’s article What It Means to be Black During a Trump Administration and read David Leonard’s Undefeated blog, Student Athlete Revolt 2.0.

The second thing that I would do is surround myself with people who are similarly committed. We do not have time, really, for a lot of hand-wringing and so forth. We have got to begin to organise because now it’s in our face.

So we need to go to work, but we need to inform ourselves. I’ve always been a scholar-activist because I believe that activism without scholarship is a formula for chaos and confusion, if not disaster. Scholarship without activism, doing a bunch of reading while doing nothing, is empty.

So read, get together with people who are similarly oriented and begin to figure out ways where coalitions can be established, where people can be organised and mobilised to fight this madness, because that is what it’s going to come down to.

It’s going to be we, the people, who are going to be the difference.

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