The Intersection of Sport and Social Change

Many trailblazing athletes whose contributions reach beyond the realm of sport have competed at San Jose State. Two celebrated examples are Tommie Smith, ’69 Social Science, ’05 Honorary Doctorate, and John Carlos, ’05 Honorary Doctorate, who raised their fists on the Olympic medal stand in Mexico City, drawing international attention to athlete activism and the core goals of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR).

Harry Edwards, ’64 Sociology, ’16 Honorary Doctorate, and Ken Noel, ’66 BA, ’68 MA Social Science, organized the OPHR in 1968 to challenge San Jose State’s athletic program and other nationwide—and the United States Olympic Committee (USOC)—to diversify their coaching and leadership ranks. The OPHR movement asked: Why should student-athletes compete for universities and organizations where they cannot also work?

Harry Edwards served as a lightning rod for OPHR, asking “Why should young black men run for an organization that will not allow them to join?”
Olympic Project for Human Rights

Harry Edwards and Ken Noel founded the OPHR at San Jose State in 1967 to advocate for a boycott of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. As Edwards wrote in The Black Scholar in 1979, “the project had four main objectives:

  • To stage an international protest of the persistent and systematic violation of black people’s human rights in the United States;
  • To expose America’s historical exploitation of black athletes as political propaganda tools in both the national and international
  • To establish a standard of political responsibility among black athletes vis-a-vis the needs and interests of the black community, and to devise effective and acceptable ways by which athletes could accommodate the demands of such responsibilities; and
  • To make the black community aware of the substantial ‘hidden’ dynamics and consequences of their sports involvement.”*

* Edwards, H. (1979). The Olympic Project for Human Rights: An Assessment Ten Years Later. The Black Scholar, 10(6/7), 2-8. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41163824


Members of the OPHR maintained that the Olympic boycott would proceed unless four conditions were met:

Though these demands were not met, the momentum and energy of the OPHR did mobilize athletes such as Tommie Smith and John Carlos to voice their concerns about the status of human rights, both in the U.S. and around the world.

Read more about Edwards and his thoughts on the origins of the OPHR in Washington Square, SJSU’s alumni magazine.

  • In protest of their white minority rule at the time, South Africa and Rhodesia were uninvited to participate in the games.
  • Muhammad Ali’s boxing title needed to be restored.
  • Avery Brundage needed to step down as president of the International Olympic Committee.
  • More African-American coaches needed to be hired.
The story of modern track and field cannot be written without the contributions of SJSU athletes and coaches,” said Bob Feuerbach, ’80, 1978 All-American. Photo of Bud Winter and John Carlos: Courtesy of SJSU Athletics.
Speed City

Between 1941 and 1970, with the innovative coaching techniques of Lloyd “Bud” Winter, 91 Spartans were ranked in the top 10 worldwide by Track and Field News, 27 were Olympians, and men’s track and field won the NCAA team title in 1969. At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, San Jose State track and field athletes also raised global consciousness of the struggle for racial and social equality through the Olympic Project for Human Rights. Many of the Speed City team members became human rights advocates, teachers, coaches and mentors, dedicating their lives to sharing what they learned at San Jose State—both locally and internationally.

The 1962 San Jose State cross country team went undefeated in seven dual meets and won the Northern California and California State Collegiate Championships.
First Integrated Championship Team

In 1962, San José State produced the first integrated team to win the NCAA Division I Cross Country Championship. The team, coached by Dean Miller, included:

  • Danny Murphy, ’66 Physical Education
  • Ron Davis, ’70 Social Science
  • Jeff Fishback, ’64 Physical Education, ’67 MA Physical Education
  • Horace Whitehead, Business Administration
  • Jose Azevedo, ’63 Metallurgical Engineering
  • Ben Tucker, ’65 Accounting and Finance

Though the team trained and competed as one, black athletes Davis and Tucker faced housing discrimination on the road. Fifty years after the team broke the NCAA record, Davis returned to SJSU as head coach of men’s and women’s cross country.

A Historic Moment

One of the lasting results of the January 24, 2017, town hall event is an iconic image of the panelists, which was staged as a recreation of a historic 1967 image of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jim Brown, and a number of other athlete-activists who had come together in support of Muhammad Ali. It was important to document the dialogue that took place at San Jose State to reference the legacy of social justice in sport. This image is now housed in the Dr. Harry Edwards Collection at San Jose State’s Special Collections and Archives in the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library.

Top: Former Cleveland Browns Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown presides over a meeting of top African-American athletes on June 4, 1967, to show support for boxer Muhammad Ali’s refusal to fight in Vietnam. Those present are: (front row) Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Lew Alcindor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; (back row) Carl Stokes, Walter Beach, Bobby Mitchell, Sid Williams, Curtis McClinton, Willie Davis, Jim Shorter and John Wooten. Photo: Bettmann/Bettmann collection/Getty Images

Bottom: Taken at the January 24, 2017, town hall. Those present are: (front row) Chris Webber, Tommie Smith, Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; (back row) Keena Turner, Harry Edwards, Takeo Spikes, Anquan Boldin.

More Pioneering Spartans

Sacramento Bee columnist and Baseball Hall of Fame voter Marcos Breton, ’86 Journalism, co-authored three books examining the Latino experience in Major League Baseball.

Lee Evans, ’70 Physical Education, two-time Olympic gold medalist, fought to exclude apartheid Rhodesia from the 1972 Games.

Juli Inkster, three-time collegiate All-American golfer, was the first woman since 1934 to win three consecutive U.S. Amateur titles.

Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, ’57 Physical Education, judo world champion, captained the 1964 Olympic team, and was one of the
highest-ranking Native American federal office holders in U.S. history

Patty Sheehan, ’80 Kinesiology, professional golfer, member of the LPGA Tour Hall of Fame, was one of the first openly gay pro golfers.

The late Bill Walsh, ’55 BA, ’59 MA, Education, three-time Super Bowl-winning head coach, advocated for positive race relations and diverse sports hiring practices.

Peter Ueberroth, ’59 Management, ’86 Honorary Doctorate, former commissioner of Major League Baseball (MLB), addressed social issues in MLB in the aftermath of former player and executive Al Campanis’ racist remarks on “Nightline” in 1987. As CEO of the 1984 Olympic Games, he created the business model for the modern Olympic Games.

Yosh Uchida, ’47 Biological Science, ’04 Honorary Doctorate, San José State’s legendary judo coach built SJSU’s program into a national powerhouse after serving in a segregated unit in World War II while his own family members were held in internment camps.