Stephanie Griffith, an opinion editor at CNN, interviewed Edwards about his decades-long friendship with Ashe and the tennis great’s legacy as a humanitarian and activist. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
CNN: Over time, Arthur Ashe came to be among your closest friends, but you were decidedly less than impressed by him initially. The film shows that before you really got to know him — when he was a college student at UCLA and in his early days playing professional tennis — you were put off by his reserved demeanor and somewhat conservative personal style. What led to the change in how you viewed him?
Edwards: When I first approached Arthur Ashe in 1968, I had known of him, of course. He was already a great tennis player and I was aware of him in my work as a sports scholar. But I did not personally know Arthur Ashe.
I was put off by him. But as I got to know him better, I came to understand that like so many people, I had prejudged him. I had presumed to know him too soon.
CNN: And what was the real Arthur Ashe like?
He protested racism here and abroad. He saw the connection clearly, but he would not be deterred — much less derailed — from his commitments, because of the trajectory and substance of the Black Power movement that was going on at the time.
It took me a while to take all of that in. But eventually, over the years, I had no more valuable ally, mentor or associate, than Art. He would call me up in the middle of the night sometimes on the phone just to talk.
Edwards: I think that Arthur understood the environment that he was moving in. He fought the battles that he could win on the issues of race. But the issue of Black male participation (in tennis) was a bridge too far.
There’s a reason why you haven’t had up until this point another Black male tennis player of Arthur Ashe’s stature. Everything that has taken place in terms of creating change of a progressive nature involving race in America has been transactional.
Nothing in the area of social justice happens simply because it is morally correct, constitutionally appropriate or ethically right. Arthur was aware of that. He and I talked about that — about him being out there literally by himself for his entire career.
CNN: And you would say the same that applies to Black athletes in a sport like golf, where there really hasn’t been a lot of diversity either?
Edwards: Absolutely. I mean, at one time people were talking about how Tiger Woods is going to open up this and that and the other for Black golfers and so forth. I knew at the time it was nonsense.
There is no transactional leverage that would bring that about: The white golfing structure is quite satisfied to be able to point to Tiger Woods and maybe one or two other golfers further down the status and ranking chain who happen to be Black. But there’s not going to be any pipeline of Black golfers as there was a pipeline of Blacks going into basketball, or a pipeline of Blacks going into football.
CNN: You talked about how your feelings evolved over time, in terms of your understanding of who Arthur Ashe was. But I assume that he too evolved over the years?
Edwards: Absolutely. Arthur, I think, became not just a committed, courageous, conscientious advocate. He became more of an activist in his last years. Even when he knew he was dying, he got arrested at a protest.
That was not something that was really part of his character in his earlier years. He was an advocate, he looked for reason and rational resolution by reaching out not just to friends and those who agreed with him, but by reaching across the barricades to those who did not agree with him. He believed with earnest conviction in reasoned discussion — that it’s always best to reach out with an outstretched hand rather than with a clenched fist.
But as he grew older, he became more convinced, I think, that militancy had its virtues. And he began to exhibit more of that — even to the point of being arrested at demonstrations late in his life.
Arthur was a deep dive into who he was, what he was, what he stood for, what he believed in — and he had the courage, commitment, intellect to pursue it. And most people move not on the basis of deep dives; they move on the basis of first impressions. But as I got to really know him, I realized that he was one of the members of the pantheon of immortals in terms of sports activism in the 20th century.
He’s part of that pantheon of sports figures who had an impact beyond the arena. Arthur is right there with them.