During an on-field brawl in 2009, a black running back had dropped a white linebacker to the blue turf of Boise State's Albertsons Stadium with a single brutal punch, and one game into his head coaching career at Oregon, Chip Kelly had a crisis to confront.
LeGarrette Blount - Oregon's star running back, 6 feet and 235 pounds of coiled muscle - had cracked Boise State's Byron Hout in the jaw, both of them fortunate that Blount had delivered no lasting damage to Hout's face. Kelly initially suspended Blount for the rest of that season, but he soon began to wonder whether the punishment was too severe. There was a young man's future to consider, and yes, there were football games to win, too. So Kelly called the University of California at Berkeley to seek the counsel of Harry Edwards.
Edwards is 72 now - a renowned sociologist and professor, an employee of the San Francisco 49ers for more than 30 years, a former Black Panther, the man who masterminded John Carlos and Tommie Smith's gloved-fist protest at the 1968 Summer Olympics. And as he recounted that first contact with Kelly, the beginning of a professional relationship that they have maintained since, he couldn't help but chuckle over the questions Kelly and the Eagles are facing these days.
On Tuesday, for instance, Kelly acknowledged that his decision to keep Riley Cooper on the roster in 2013 after Cooper was caught using a racial slur at a concert could have created a pretext for the controversy that has followed: a succession of former Eagles - running back LeSean McCoy, coach Tra Thomas, cornerback Brandon Boykin - who have suggested that Kelly can't or doesn't care to relate to black players.
Kelly has been staring into the maw of society's outrage machine all summer, and over the phone Tuesday, you could practically hear Edwards shaking his head over the absurdity of it. After all, as the Wall Street Journal revealed last year, Kelly had the Eagles' chief of staff, James Harris, call Edwards on Kelly's behalf after the Cooper incident, and Edwards recommended that Kelly keep Cooper on the team and tell the other Eagles players, You can choose not to be offended.
"These issues are, at best, sidebar concerns," Edwards said. "We're talking about funhouse-mirror images, and they're not real."
Amid the bluster and speculation on sports talk-radio and those ESPN screamfests that specialize in ersatz debate, here comes one of the country's most outspoken civil-rights activists defending Kelly, asserting that he does not believe Kelly has exhibited any racism and never would.
Remember: Edwards has nothing to gain in standing by Kelly. He's the one with all the history and credibility on this issue. He could walk away from this association, offer some mealymouthed well-it-could-be-true-but-who-knows answer when asked about how Kelly has been characterized, and his reputation would remain intact. Yet he chalked up the accusations from Thomas ("a hint of racism"), McCoy (Kelly got rid of "all the good black players"), and Boykin ("He is uncomfortable around grown men of our culture") to a convenient rationalization that he has found to be common in the NFL.
"Athletes are very capable of emulating each other in trying to wrap their minds around why things don't work out," he said. "So if somebody's traded, and somebody else who left said this, and somebody who left before that said the same thing, they're more likely to say, 'Hey, guess what? I'm another casualty of that' when, in point of fact, guys are let go, cut, traded for all kinds of reasons."
Maybe the most heartening aspect of this story, maybe the only one, is the defiance with which Kelly has responded to it. Is he taking this posture at least in part out of arrogance? Of course. But so what? From his unwillingness to be "governed by the fear of what other people say" to his insistence Tuesday that he did the right thing by not releasing Cooper, he has refused to fight a battle he cannot win, and it's refreshing to see someone who doesn't kowtow to the shrieking mob.
Besides, any other course of action would be pointless, Edwards said, because there's nothing Kelly can do to satisfy those who want to believe the worst about him.
"Once you get a certain kind of jacket on you, it's virtually impossible to get rid of it," Edwards said, "especially under circumstances in which the only getting-rid-of-it that matters is to have on exactly the opposite jacket. It's as if it's not enough for Chip Kelly to be evenhanded in terms of this situation. He must be demonstrably progressive. He almost has to show up with a 'Black Lives Matter' T-shirt.
"He should be himself. To the extent that he deals with it at all, he should deal with it in-house, in the team meeting room. 'Guys, there's a lot of stuff floating around out there that's not valid, that doesn't have anything to do with us here and what we're trying to get done.' "
That same approach - that Kelly will focus on his football team and draw on any resource to try to improve it - was what compelled him to call Edwards in 2009. The two mapped out a plan that included having Blount write a letter of apology to Hout, that led to his reinstatement two months after the incident.
"You can take that back to Chip Kelly," Edwards said, "and the wisdom of, 'OK, look. This is not the end of the world. Let's salvage this young man. Let's make sure he's not back in the projects, on the streets, doing God knows what, and he has a chance to realize at least some of his hopes and dreams.' "
Blount plays for the New England Patriots, and he has not been an angel since he left Oregon. He punched a Tennessee Titans teammate in 2010. He walked out on the Steelers last year. He has been suspended for this season's first game for violating the NFL's drug policy. If you want to argue that Kelly and Edwards should have seen those transgressions coming, if you want to use your hindsight as a cudgel, fine. Just understand something: Chip Kelly helped a good black player save his pro football career before it even began, and he doesn't have to apologize for that, or anything else.