BERKELEY — Harry Edwards, invited Friday by baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth to help find jobs in the sport for minorities, pushed his way onto the American sports scene through the back door 20 years ago when he organized a revolt by black athletes.
Edwards, a 6-8 former discus thrower and basketball player at San Jose State, was a 24-year-old sociology instructor at the school, and the revolt he led caused the cancellation of a football game against Brigham Young University.
A year later, Edwards jumped into national and world prominence when he tried to organize a boycott by black American athletes of the Olympic Games in Mexico City.
The boycott didn't quite succeed, but the closed-fist salute, a symbol of protest and black power in those turbulent times, by San Jose sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos after their 1-2 finish in the 200-meter dash created a furor.
Critics complained the action stained the Olympics with politics, but the protest seems mild now compared to the tragic massacre of Israeli athletes four years later and the boycotts that plagued the Games in 1976, 1980 and 1984.
Edwards, identified in the press early on as a "Negro militant" or "black sports activist," became a leading critic of the treatment of minority athletes in college and professional sports.
He bolstered his credentials as a scholar after the Olympics by returning to Cornell University, where he had earned his masters degree in sociology, and began lecturing and working on his doctorate.
In 1969, Edwards wrote an influential and controversial book "The Revolt of the Black Athlete," and followed that with two other books and dozens of articles in popular magazines and scholarly journals.
He again became a center of controversy in 1970 when he was named to the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley, then, as now, one of most politically active campuses in the nation. The appointment, said the state superintendent of public instruction, was "like pouring a can of gasoline on a forest fire."
Edwards' courses on the sociology of sports became some of the most popular at the school, but he sparked an uproar again in 1976 when he charged that racism was behind the sociology department's denial of tenure to him.
"It's not just the tenure procedure, but a case history of harassment," said Edwards, who claimed the popularity of his courses was proof of his teaching effectiveness.
However, a publication in which students evaluate instructors included several comments critical of Edwards, including: "Harry is loaded with hate. He is at least the equivalent of those he calls racists."
The department chairman conceded that Edwards "can be intellectually quite provocative at times," but said that was not the only criterion used in evaluating the faculty.
Edwards said many of his colleagues may have been upset with his three books and 50 articles, many of which were published in non-scholarly, popular magazines.
He finally won tenure in 1977, by a faculty vote of 11-8, and vowed to remain "active on the picket lines, rostrums, in faculty meetings, in the legislature, and in every other way."