Interview with HARRY EDWARDS : Fighting From the Inside

Former jock and campus radical HARRY EDWARDS now works to put minorities into the front offices of professional baseball

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A. To gather two ends to pick up the middle. On one end, we've worked to create a viable pool of candidates who are qualified now to take over a managerial or front-office position. On the other end, we're bringing younger minorities and women who are not advanced in their careers into lower-echelon positions within a sports organization. The idea is to get them into the loop, learning the business and moving up through the system and into the comfort zone of those who do the hiring. The individuals who tend to be hired are usually those known to the people in authority.

Q. You recently warned that baseball faces demonstrations and lawsuits because of its failure to integrate minorities into meaningful positions of leadership. Under what circumstances would that come about?

A. I believe the struggle at the interface of race and sports should be one that is led, developed programmatically and implemented by sports people with intimate knowledge of their institution. If those sports people fail to meet their obligations to move the institution ahead, in terms of broadening democratic participation, then you'll begin to get the civil rights people, protest interests and the lawyers stepping in.

Q. But you have stated that the problems involving race and sport cannot be solved by affirmative action, the major tool to redress racial inequality in American society. Why not?

A. This has got me into a great deal of conflict with the civil rights establishment, but I hold that affirmative action is not a universal panacea. It's a tool, and no area indicates that more than sports. The N.B.A., for example, is 75% black, and there was no affirmative action involved in it. But if you had an affirmative-action plan in the N.B.A. based on society at large, you'd have 10% black players and 90% white players. As a tool, affirmative action would be counterproductive. The front-office situation in baseball, in sports in general, is not amenable to traditional civil rights remedies.

Q. Has anything really changed in the 20 years since your call for an Olympic boycott?

A. Things have changed for the better, but the struggle is not linear. It's dynamic and ever changing. Jesse Owens and Joe Louis struggled for the legitimacy of black athletic talent. Later, Jackie Robinson, Bill Russell and others struggled for access. In the late '60s, athletes like Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Arthur Ashe and Kareem ((Abdul-Jabbar)) fought for recognition of the dignity of the black athlete. Now we're in the struggle for power, and that's the most difficult of all. If we can broaden democratic participation in sports, then there is at least the possibility that we can devise credible strategies for approaching the situation in society as a whole.

Q. What attracted you to sports?

A. My father always pushed me toward sports. The first thing I can remember is my father buying me a pair of boxing gloves. The Joe Louis phenomenon. It was something that was drilled into me for as long as I could remember. The basic idea was, 'Hey, Jesse Owens, Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson -- they're making endorsements. They got it made.' They've all proved that if you can make it in athletics, you can make it in American society. Here was a way up and out of the degradations that black people suffered. Later, of course, I found out this wasn't the case at all.

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