Lessons From Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf

Colin Kaepernick is right to double down on his national anthem protest.

Before an NFL preseason game last week, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem. When asked why, he said he wouldn’t “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

The backlash began almost immediately.

One fan burned Kaepernick’s jersey as the national anthem sounded in the background. Minnesota Vikings guard Alex Boone excoriated Kaepernick for not showing “respect for people who served, especially people that lost their life to protect our freedom.” Tennis star John Isner called Kaepernick’s actions “pathetic” and said, “I’m a big Blaine Gabbert fan now,” referring to the 49ers quarterback Kaepernick is jostling with for the first-string position. Donald Trump said Kaepernick “should find a country that works better for him.” Sports journalist Clay Travis labeled the Niners quarterback a “fucking idiot.”

While Kaepernick hasn’t been formally reprimanded for his bold stand, the episode resembles a largely forgotten piece of 1990s sports history. As Dennis Perrin’s recounts in his 2000 book American Fan: Sports Mania and the Culture That Feeds It, excerpted below, NBA point guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf found himself embroiled in a national controversy for declining to stand at the pre-game national anthem. Abdul-Rauf was suspended by the league, then sent to “basketball Siberia.” He now says his “best years were taken away.”

The lesson (which Kaepernick seems to be heeding)? Be more like Muhammad Ali, Perrin argues.

During the 1995–96 NBA season, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (born Chris Jackson) led the Denver Nuggets in scoring and was regarded as one of the better point guards in the league. As the season progressed, members of the press noticed that he was absent during the national anthem. Abdul-Rauf, whose name means “Elegant and Praiseworthy, Servant of the Most Kind,” felt it was his Muslim duty to not honor a symbol of, in his words, “oppression and tyranny.” He would either come late to the court or sit on the bench until the song’s end. He did this quietly, made no proclamations.

He didn’t need to: the press was happy to shatter his silence.

The NBA placed Abdul-Rauf on indefinite suspension. He was not allowed to return until he praised Old Glory in full view of the league and its paying customers. Abdul-Rauf held out for three days, missed one game (which cost him over thirty grand), then finally acquiesced.

“I’ll stand,” he said. “I will offer a prayer, my own prayer, for those who are suffering — Muslim, Caucasian, African American, Asian, or whoever is in that position, whoever is experiencing difficulty. This is what I cry out for.”

Naturally, Abdul-Rauf was vilified from coast to coast. But the real patriotic fun took place on March 15, 1996, the night he returned to his team. The Nuggets were in Chicago to play the Bulls. With the opening notes of the anthem, the fan barrage began. An oversized American flag was held just to Abdul-Rauf’s left; placards were waved, insults shouted. It was a lesson in mob behavior hopefully absorbed by the children present. What better way to honor freedom than to harass someone who has a minority opinion and no power to enforce it?

The anti-American stigma stayed with Abdul-Rauf for the rest of that season. He quietly weathered verbal abuse and went about his job. He was then sent to NBA Siberia, the Sacramento Kings, where for nearly two seasons he plied his trade until a corneal ulcer in his left eye forced him to the sidelines. The Kings made it clear that they had no further use for Abdul-Rauf, regardless of recovery. Once Sacramento took a pass, his NBA days were over.

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf’s problem was that he was not Muhammad Ali. For one thing, he lacked the global fame of the three-time heavyweight champ — a major setback when flouting tribal rites. But perhaps more damaging, Abdul-Rauf never raised a public stink about his rights or beliefs. He failed to adopt grandstand tactics and proved a crucial error.

Once Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali, he let the crackers know it. He taunted them, called them devils, spat on their idols, told them Jesus Christ was black. When Ali resisted the draft, he was bold, unrepentant. His carnival barker style, part of the American rhetorical tradition, riveted people regardless of color. Abdul-Rauf was far too modest and withdrawn to connect with the public and so paid the price. Ali was showfolk, unlike Abdul-Rauf, whose seriousness did him in.