It should come as no surprise that as plans for the National Museum of African American History and Culture were developed a few years ago, director Lonnie Bunch reached out to Harry Edwards for input.
The eminent sociologist, himself a piece of walking history, helped with a game-changers exhibit that illuminates the impact of sports figures at the Smithsonian’s newest attraction.
Of course, history continues to evolve, which is why Colin Kaepernick – who jarred America’s consciousness last season by first sitting and then taking a knee during the national anthem – is expected to ultimately be featured in a display at the Smithsonian.
Late last year, not long after the museum opened, Edwards donated a collection of items relating to the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback and urged curators to, well, put them on exhibit, ASAP.
“I said, ‘Don’t wait 50 years to try to get some memorabilia and so forth on Kaepernick,’ ” Edwards told USA TODAY Sports. “ ‘Let me give you a game jersey, some shoes, a picture … And it should be put right there alongside Muhammad Ali. He’s this generation’s Ali.’ ”
The Kaepernick items are not currently on display, but the museum’s curator of sports, Damion Thomas, told USA TODAY Sports on Wednesday that he expects new material in their collection will be rotated into exhibits in one to two years.
A half-century since he organized the Olympic Project for Human Rights – which culminated with the iconic image of sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising black-gloved fists on the victory stand at Mexico City in 1968 to protest inequalities of American life – Edwards, 75, still drips with passion as he reflects on the role and platform of sports as a conduit for social change.
Next week, the seminal book by Edwards first published in 1969, The Revolt of the Black Athlete, which details the Olympic movement, will be re-released (University of Illinois Press) with a new introduction and a tribute to Ali.
Kaepernick, meanwhile, is still a quarterback without a team. He is seemingly paying a price after sparking a movement with his anthem protest of police brutality and other social inequalities, which strikingly, reflect some of the same concerns expressed 50 years ago with the Olympic protests.
Although Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll this week revealed interest in considering Kaepernick for a backup role behind Russell Wilson and Edwards tells USA TODAY Sports that five teams have contacted him about the quarterback – on Tuesday he spoke to an NFL head coach for more than an hour about Kaepernick, and also to the general manager of a team – speculation persists that there are teams that won’t touch Kaepernick because of the political activism he demonstrated for the first time of his career.
Edwards, a consultant to the 49ers who was an adviser to Kaepernick last season but isn’t currently connected to the quarterback, doesn’t go as far as others have in suggesting that Kaepernick has been blackballed by the NFL while lesser-accomplished quarterbacks are signed to backup roles.
But he says, “If they are stupid enough to make a martyr out of Kaep, it’s going to get even more interesting.”
In one regard, it’s a stretch to compare Kaepernick, 29, to Ali, given the late boxer’s prolonged exile stemming from his refusal to register for the military draft during the Vietnam War, and a global human rights track record that spanned decades. Yet Kaepernick, who has continued his support of numerous charitable and community-based programs this offseason, has surely demonstrated the Ali spirit.
And he’s undoubtedly left a footprint on history that will linger.
“Ali created a conversation,” Edwards said. “The conversation was going on at lower frequencies, but when the world champion steps forward and says, ‘No Viet Cong ever called me a (expletive), and we have some issue we need to deal with here, not over there in a war that make no sense,’ it moved the discussion to another level.
“The same thing with Kaepernick. He sparked a national conversation about race.”
Edwards views Kaepernick – who according to an ESPN report in March has decided that he will now stand again for the anthem when he gets another NFL job – and other athletes today who have engaged in social protests as part of a “fourth wave” positioned to spark societal change.
“As validated as past struggles have been," Edwards said "it is unequivocally certain that 25, 35, 45 years from now, these battles will still be fought, but probably under different ideological auspices by a different generation of athletes. The essential task will be the same: to achieve that more perfect union…using sports not just to leverage that, but to project and demonstrate that. This is why this struggle is so important. It’s a window on who we are as a society.”
Edwards insists that history never repeats itself as the common phrase maintains.
“But what we re-live are the processes, the dynamics,” he said. “You can make your own history, which is why what Kaepernick did was so important.”
And worthy of a place at the Smithsonian.
Follow NFL columnist Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell
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