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UCSD athletic director is on a mission of racial equality

UC San Diego Athletic Director Earl Edwards is overseeing the school's transition to Division I.
UC San Diego Athletic Director Earl Edwards is overseeing the school’s transition to Division I.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

As Tritons go Division I, Earl Edwards wants to use his platform to promote social change.

Earl Edwards was born in Selma, Ala., in the early 1950s, when it was a segregated city, before it became a flashpoint in the civil-rights movement. His parents moved to New York when he was 1 to escape the overt racism of the South, but they returned most summers to visit his grandparents.

One summer, they were staying at a hotel in Selma with a pool. Earl and his sister jumped in. The white kids in the pool got out.

“We clearly knew what was happening,” Edwards said. “My personality is such that I swam back and forth, splashing, clearly badgering them with how much fun I was having with my sister to the point where they couldn’t take it anymore. They jumped back in eventually. There was a clear message there.”

Edwards, UC San Diego’s athletic director for the past 20 years, wants to keep sending those messages. George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis in May struck a chord deep inside him, and Edwards won’t sit back and watch others splashing around.

“I, as a black person, can no longer be silent on racist attitudes or racist actions or the racist environment that we live in,” said Edwards, who became the fourth black AD among California’s 25 Division I universities when UCSD officially elevated from Division II on July 1. “As an athletic director, we have a very large sphere of influence, not just with the athletic community but with the community around us from the public recognition we get and the platforms we are given to speak.

“Not only do I feel comfortable and empowered, I feel I can make a difference. Hopefully, we all feel we can make a difference.”

Edwards hosted a “town hall” meeting last month with UCSD athletes. Nearly 200 joined the video call. It was scheduled for an hour and lasted two. He had another for coaches and staff that drew 80 people.

He’s made Derald Wing Sue’s 2016 book, “Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence,” required summer reading for coaches and staff to facilitate more discussions.

He wants to collaborate with campus community centers for different races, cultures and underrepresented groups. He plans to meet with chiefs of campus and San Diego police departments. He’ll refine messaging for coaches to their athletes. Teams will schedule no games on Election Day in November so they can spend the day encouraging people to vote. He’ll draft a department “action plan” by the end of the summer to reinforce the core value of inclusion.

“What I don’t want to have happen, and this happens frequently,” Edwards said, “is you get this emotional, committed rush for a period of time, a couple of months or however long it might be. We’re going to create a systematic approach to all of this moving forward. Whatever we put in place will be an ongoing thing, a regular conversation. It’s not just a conversation for now. It’s long term.”

Edwards says he had the intention of pushing a similar agenda when he was named UCSD’s athletic director in 2000, in much the same way that Judy Sweet, his predecessor, had for Title IX and gender equity. He decided against it.

“I’m glad I went through this process,” Edwards said, “because you have to do this as a black leader — what’s the likely response that the majority will buy into what I’m trying to do for the good of the department vs. this is my personal agenda because I’m black? It’s dismissed, or it’s not as impactful as if everybody is on a similar page.

“What does that mean as far as my message, and what does that mean as far as me as an individual? What it could mean is I no longer have a job because I’m not playing by the rules, I’m a troublemaker, I’m an agitator, I’m talking about something nobody wants to talk about.

“So I put that to the background. Now what I really feel is more buy-in from everyone on our staff after seeing the George Floyd murder. … I’m comfortable now that I’m making the right decision vs. 20 years ago. Now I think eyes and ears are open. Prior to this, eyes and ears were closed in a lot of situations.”

At the town hall meeting with athletes, several spoke about not feeling completely embraced.

“We’d all like to think our athletic programs are homogenous, we’re on the same page, kumbaya,” Edwards said. “Clearly, they let us know that’s not the case, so we’re doing things to address that. What I liked was, as white students were listening to this conversation, there were a number of actual apologies where people were saying: ‘I didn’t realize that, I didn’t know that was offensive. I hear what you’re saying and we’re going to do better moving forward.’”

Complicating matters is that UCSD historically has been among the athletic departments in America with the fewest people of color, which Edwards attributes to its relatively young age, its sports offerings (it doesn’t have football) and its relative lack of financial resources. Even when UCSD transitioned from Division III to Division II in 2000, it retained a non-scholarship model until the ramp-up to Division I, which requires scholarship minimums.

As for the ethnic makeup of the campus, UCSD’s “diversity dashboard” says 894 students out of 30,794 undergraduates, or 2.9 percent, identified themselves as black or African-American in 2019-20 (up from 584, or 2.1 percent, in 2015-16). There were 15,895 Asian, 6,711 Chicano or Latino and 6,093 white students.

“If you look at our [athletic] program today,” Edwards said, “it’s not overwhelming as far as diversity, but it’s a heck of lot more diverse than it has been. The big challenge is that a lot of people like to hang onto the past and that’s how they see it, but we’re not the same people, we’re not the same program as we were before. I feel very comfortable in the sense that we’ve made some steps, not to say I’m comfortable with where we are.”

He hopes Division I will change that.

“I want to make this clear: Now that we’re Division I, we’re going to get a lot more diverse athletes. A big part of why we’re not as diverse as we’d like or should be is not because UC San Diego hasn’t made an aggressive attempt to recruit diverse individuals. In fact, we’ve accepted a lot of students of color. But what those same black students could get if they go to an Ivy League or a USC, it’s a better financial package. The advantage our athletic department has now is we’re giving out scholarships like any other Division I program.”

The other, more immediate process will be discussion, collaboration and education. Eventually, that can happen in person. For now, it’s via computer.

There haven’t been any games since March and there won’t be any more at least until late August, coronavirus pandemic permitting.

“It’s brought us together,” Edwards said. “It’s made us all closer because we’re talking about something that is real, talking about us as humans. It’s not about the next game or who’s won a championship. It’s about creating a family and what that means. I feel that’s where we’re headed. I feel extremely comfortable leading these discussions, but I won’t be the only voice.

“However many people I impact ... if we’re all doing something similar and you put it all together, we’ll finally see some real change when it comes to racism in our society.”