James Brown ’73, a former star on the Harvard men’s basketball team and current host of NFL Today on CBS, returned to campus Wednesday for events sponsored by the Harvard men’s basketball team and the Institute of Politics. Brown was joined by Dr. Harry Edwards, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at UC Berkeley.
Wednesday marks the second year in a row that the basketball team has joined forces with the IOP to welcome influential athletes to speak about social issues surrounding sports. Last October, NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar spoke at a coaches’ clinic hosted annually by Harvard coach Tommy Amaker. Later that day, Abdul-Jabbar appeared at the IOP alongside Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard.
The event kicked off with both Brown and Edwards attending Amaker’s “breakfast club”, a meeting of influential African American Harvard professors and professionals from the Boston area. Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh was also on hand for the breakfast, which typically occurs each month at Henrietta’s Table in the Charles Hotel.
Brown and Edwards then held an hour-long press conference in the Murr Center Hall of History. Both men discussed their college experiences as African Americans during tense periods of American history (Edwards attended college during the civil rights movement, while Brown attended during race riots and the Vietnam War).
“I’m not sure that I had a voice, other than my parents’, that I was aware of, like Dr. Edwards, who put it all in the context,” Brown said. “I like to think I benefitted from those experiences in terms of staying grounded and how that defines my worldview and the influence that I try to have on society at large.”
After having lunch with Amaker, his staff, and members of the men’s basketball team, Brown and Edwards spoke at the IOP on Wednesday night for an event entitled “From Robinson to Kaepernick: The Evolution of Athlete Activism”.
Both men are familiar with Harvard, as Brown earned his degree in Government and lived in Leverett House. Meanwhile,Edwards’ daughter, Tazamisha Heshima Imara, graduated in 1993, and his goddaughter is currently a freshman.
The conversation shifted to African Americans on college campuses across the country and the social impact that athletes can have. Edwards, an expert on the sociology of sports, has served as an adviser for professional sports franchises and authored several books, including The Revolt of the Black Athlete. He is perhaps most famous for organizing the Olympic Project for Human Rights, an effort that resulted in the protest by John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Summer Olympics. On Wednesday, Edwards described the Black Power protest by Carlos and Smith as one of the most iconic sports images of the 20th century.
Edwards detailed his experience working alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Malcolm X, and others during the civil rights movement. He highlighted many parallels with current affairs, calling Colin Kaepernick—someone with whom he has worked extensively—as “the Muhammad Ali of this generation.”
“The issue of white supremacy and the patriarchy is so pervasive in America,” Edwards said. “This problem is everywhere, and if you do not recognize it at Harvard, it’s not because it’s not here; it’s because there’s a trending version of it that’s broken out someplace else, whether it’s the University of Missouri or the San Francisco 49ers or the Seattle Seahawks or the Eagles or Ferguson.”
Brown’s journey to CBS began in Bethesda, Md., where he lives today, not far from his alma mater, DeMatha Catholic. There, he played high school basketball under legendary coach Morgan Wooten, a man that Brown described as a powerful teacher.
“He walked the talk,” Brown said of Wooten. “He was always rooted in respect. He suggested that the collegiate experience ought to be an extraordinary one—academically, socially. ‘Go to a school where there’s a diverse population because that’s the world you’ll be working in—and in basketball.’”
Brown knew that he wanted to attend an Ivy League school, preferably Princeton. Around that time, the Tigers basketball program revolved around future US Senator Bill Bradley, who is eight years Brown’s senior.
“Had I gotten a letter from Princeton, I would’ve tried to go there first,” Brown said. “Harvard was the first letter I saw on my coach’s desk, and I said, ‘If I can get into Harvard, that’s where I want to go.’ While we didn’t realize our athletic dream, in its totality, the Harvard experience was awesome for me…. If I have any influence on my four grandkids, if they can get in, they’re coming to Harvard.”
With the Crimson, Brown was a three-time All-Ivy selection. The team went 45-33 in his three seasons with the varsity but never qualified for the NCAA Tournament, something that Harvard did not do at all between 1947 and 2011. On Wednesday, he lauded Amaker for turning Harvard into a perennial Ivy League and mid-major powerhouse.
“I have the biggest cheer for Harvard whenever I see them because I know the foundation upon which Tommy stands and that he never accepts the compliments—he always defers them,” Brown said. “That’s because he was a point guard in basketball, and he’s a point guard in the game of life.”
Brown worked for FOX NFL Sunday for 13 seasons before joining CBS for his second stint with the network in 2008. He alluded to a trip he took to Israel in 2015 with 19 NFL stars and Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer as an example of the impact that athletes can have outside of the realm of sports.
“It’s interesting to me that people have the attitude ‘stick to sports,’” Brown said. “Athletes are very much a part of the community, absolute citizens like anybody else. People say, ‘Well, why don’t they take their advocacy to another arena?’ Are you kidding me?...No, don’t stick to sports, just be informed and articulate it properly because sports is continually used as an arena that moves the needle forward in society.”
Edwards has put much of his life’s work into using sports as a platform for African Americans to speak out on issues of race. While much of his work centers around basketball and football, he has worked alongside Major League Baseball to address the sport’s lack of African American players.
“Basketball is still considered the quintessential black sport, and so anything happening in the African American community and Boston generally, anything happening among African American students on this campus, potentially can interface with basketball,” Edwards said. “You want to always be aware of that broad community connection and that ethnographic political history of basketball and its emergence as the quintessential black sport.”
Edwards ended the press conference with a call for students at Harvard to make their voices heard.
“You talk about the number of African American kids who come in this fall and so forth,” Edwards said. “Don’t fool yourself into thinking that they are not at some point going to say, ‘What is our disposition toward Black Lives Matter? What is our disposition toward the latest police killing? What is our disposition toward the DACA situation? Are we in one of those things where they come for DACA, and then when they come for us, [and] there’s no one left to say anything? What do we do? What stand do we take?”
—Staff writer Stephen J. Gleason can be reached at email@example.com.
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