Gerald Early grew up in Philadelphia with a "soft spot" for Pete Rose (after all, the Phillies' only World Series victory was in 1980 with Charlie Hustle leading the way) and an appreciation for the artistry of Randall Cunningham, one of two starting black quarterbacks who couldn't lead the Eagles to the Super Bowl in the '80s and '90s.

Thus, the nuances of fandom have informed the scholarship of Professor Gerald Early, director of the Humanities Center at Washington University, in St. Louis. He is one of the clearest voices of the academy weighing in seriously on sports, particularly boxing. His new book is "This Is Where I Came In: Black America in the 1960's."

Soon after the flap over Rush Limbaugh's remarks on ESPN about the Eagles' black quarterback, Donovan McNabb, being overrated by the liberal media, Professor Early delivered a series of lectures at Harvard on race and sports. The first lecture, available by clicking here, is remarkable for its reasonable tone and the way it uses the controversy to range over scrambling quarterbacks, Affirmative Action, the film "Any Given Sunday," black religious tradition and the seductive joy of sports.

It is sports-chat on its highest level and the Writers Bloc's No. 1 draft pick for Black History Month.

Robert Lipsyte recently talked to Professor Early about his lectures and related issues.

Q&A with Gerald Early | From Robert Lipsyte

LIPSYTE: In 2004, does a black quarterback still matter ... is he symbolic of anything?

Steve McNair
AP Photo
Steve McNair is also a symbol of toughness in the NFL.

EARLY: I suppose he shouldn't be -- they're fairly common in high school, college and the pros now. But there is something about the quarterback position, the glamour of it, the brains of the team on offense, the way it makes the player prominent in ways no other player is, and because of the history of the position in that blacks had been excluded. The position has been politicized.

LIPSYTE: So much of sports has been politicized, yet we cling to the idea of sports as a sanctuary from the real world.

EARLY: That's the clash. But it's also sports' power, that it operates both politically and non-politically. There are times when people will see sports as representing some ideology -- the strength of democracy or totalitarianism. But on another level, the visceral experience of sports, the sense of identification it brings, the suspension of a certain kind of reality for the hyper-reality that's going on on the field transcends anything. It's like an art experience. You can escape from the mundane world.

LIPSYTE: And that's good?

EARLY: It's what is.

LIPSYTE: When some people look around and see African-Americans dominating sports, they see a good thing that shows the strength of democracy.

EARLY: (laughing) It's a good thing that these young men and women are getting recognition and financial rewards, but I don't know that it shows that democracy works. The competitive nature of sports eventually leads people to get the best athletes to perform.

LIPSYTE: Do you see anything in the argument that African-Americans are being channeled into sports and away from competing with whites for spots in medical and law schools?

EARLY: That's only assuming that the people who are going into sports would be going into medical school and law school. I understand the whole dumb jock thing and the mixed feelings we have about athletes as entertainers, but our very best athletes are people we reward very lavishly. The Alex Rodriguezes occupy a special place in our culture in much the same way as very successful artists. They achieve a level of excellence that most people will never achieve in whatever they do. That's what's honored and respected.

LIPSYTE: And, some people think, used to delude black kids, poor kids, into giving up books for balls.

EARLY: I just read this piece recently by Harry Edwards in which he says he's changed his mind about sports and black kids. Life in the inner city is so bad that sports can be good for them, act as a socializer, help keep them in school. I found this fairly persuasive. There are bigger concerns among African-Americans than black kids playing sports.

AP Photo
Kids going through basketball drills as part of a church ministry.

LIPSYTE: Such as?

EARLY: Health, education, high divorce rates, high rates of illegitimate births, high rates of female heads of household, AIDS, all the stuff you know about. Schools in inner city neighborhoods have very high absentee rates, and if you can get a kid to go to school because he has a chance to play on a team, what's so wrong with that? Is it different from going to school to play in the band? I understand the argument of kids having too much of a preoccupation with something that's such a pipe dream, but what Edwards is arguing now is that if people organize leagues and teams, it provides a socializing mechanism and a release mechanism for their energies. This sounds like an argument you would hear in the early part of the 20th Century about the virtues of sport, but if Edwards is making it now, it means that conditions are pretty bad in the inner city.

LIPSYTE: I remember it was Edwards who warned us 20 years ago that there would be all kinds of bad behavior in college and pro sports as the ethos of the underclass from the inner city takes over.

EARLY: That seems to be turning out to be true. If those sociopath aspects are not countered in some way through other values you try to teach through sports, if you just exploit it to have a more violent performance on the field, you'll just be creating better sociopaths. That's what colleges are seeing now. What Edwards is talking about will only be successful if you do something to stem the worshipping of the thug persona that is so admired.

LIPSYTE: You're one of the leading public intellectuals who is also an unashamed and knowledgeable sports fan. Do other academics look at you cockeyed?

EARLY: There's a certain condescending attitude toward sports among many academics. I'd like to get people to take it more seriously. I myself think talking about sports is a lot more real than deconstructing the later poems of Robert Lowell, and I like Lowell's poetry.

LIPSYTE: Give me an example of how you might approach sports in such an academic way.

EARLY: Think about winning as avoiding the uncertainty of equality. Football and hockey are about intimidation. The doping, the corked bats, the doctored baseball, the illegal recruiting are all attempts to get an edge because who can stand that sense of meaninglessness that comes with equality. So we create inequality, which is winning.

LIPSYTE: You never studied with Professor Vince Lombardi, did you?