For many of us who are trying to move towards a more inclusive and open society for everyone, it is essential that we know the benefits and importance of protest. I want to highlight a significant figure within U.S. history whose protest we see continues on today.
In 2016, San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to protest the National Anthem by not standing. His reasoning was in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement and against the killing of African Americans by the police. Although this was a controversial move, he received widespread support and praise for his actions from all over the nation and world. While corporate America and politicians such as Iowa Congressman Steve King who equated sitting during the National Anthem to a terrorist organization, “This is activism that’s sympathetic to ISIS.” Enduring the harsh words of our elected officials was just the beginning of the effects of Kaepernick’s protest. Unfortunately, his own employer the National Football League has treated him as a pariah. Even this current administration has waded into this issue, on the night of May 2nd, President Donald Trump said he’s the reason Colin Kaepernick hasn’t been signed yet, citing teams’ apparent fear of getting a nasty tweet from him afterwards. After having lead his team to the Super Bowl and NFC championships, he is now, as a free agent, unable to get a contract with any football teams. 20 years ago, almost to the day, another sports athlete, pro-basketball player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the National Anthem. His treatment has been a cautionary tale for our athletes.
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, formerly Chris Jackson, embraced Islam in 1991 when he was a student at my alma mater Louisiana State University (LSU). Interestingly, this is also the school that basketball great Shaquille O’Neal graduated in 2000, so LSU was a feeder school for some of our most talented basketball players. Abdul-Rauf was signed as a star player for the Denver Nuggets, but he was also known for one of the most accurate free-throw shooting records ever. In early 1996 Abdul-Rauf had been trying to avoid controversy regarding the National Anthem by staying in the locker or facing away, finally he decided to stop standing for the anthem. His reasoning for not standing was the result of his becoming more politically aware of the national and global repercussions of US policies noting “the flag in many countries represents “oppression and tyranny.”
The National Basketball Association (NBA) swiftly took action against Abdul-Rauf, suspending him from the team. The suspension was lifted after 72 hours with Abdul-Rauf agreeing to stand with his hands in prayer. Although there was no rule about standing for the anthem, the NBA fined him, suspended him, and tried to end his career. The Nuggets traded him and he wasn’t picked up by any other NBA team. He moved around, playing internationally, but never getting another opportunity to play for the NBA in the US. Abdul-Rauf also received death threats and his house was destroyed due to his actions. These appear to be similar tactics being used against Kaepernick, but now that there is social media and other outlets support for his protest is better mobilized.
Abdul-Rauf has endured and to this day he repeats what he said when he was being faced with the loss of his career, wealth, and standing as an athlete, “I have no regrets. This is what I believed and I’m not wrong for the stance that I took.” He has read the works of Arundhati Roy, the Indian political activist and author, and her words encouraged and opened his eyes, “Once you see something, you can’t unsee it. So to be silent, to say nothing, is just as political an act of speaking out. Either way you’re accountable. So we’re not saved through our silence, actually, the politics of silence is a negative one, we’re still accountable.” Finally, Abdul-Rauf was recently speaking in Houston, TX about his life and career, something he does much more now that others are comparing Kaepernick’s activism to his, he notes that for him protesting doesn’t conflict with his Muslim faith, “You can’t be for God and for oppression.”
Other resources about Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf:
- Ken Denlinger. “NBA lifts ban after anthem accord.” The Times-Picayune, March 15, 1996, A 1, A 10.