Two decades before Colin Kaepernick, there was Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. Two decades before Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem to draw attention to the excessive use of force by police, there was Abdul-Rauf, the high-scoring Denver Nuggets point guard who sat during the anthem. The similarities between the two men’s situations extend beyond their political stances, but the fundamental connection is this: both drew fierce blowback for what was, at its heart, a peaceful statement of political dissent.
Abdul-Rauf recently sat down with Yahoo Sports to discuss his history and the decision to stop standing for the anthem. A convert to Islam after he turned pro, the former Chris Jackson found peace and strength in the words of the Koran. And that led him to make his protest, sitting while others stood for the anthem.
Like Kaepernick’s protest, Abdul-Rauf’s action went unnoticed for many games. But when asked about it, he didn’t back down in the slightest. Calling the flag “a symbol of oppression, of tyranny,” he said. “This country has a long history of that. I don’t think you can argue the facts. You can’t be for God and for oppression.”
The reaction from the NBA was swift and severe. Abdul-Rauf was suspended indefinitely, costing him more than $31,000 a game. But he swiftly worked out an agreement with the league—laws permit the exercise of religious freedom in the workplace—and was permitted to stand with his head bowed, facing his hands.
Compare that with Kaepernick, who was permitted to continue his protest with no action from the league or his then-team, the San Francisco 49ers. (It’s a twist of historical irony, and perhaps a sign of cultural change, that the NBA, now regarded as the most progressive major sports league, cracked down on Abdul-Rauf while the slow-to-change NFL let Kaepernick ride.)
“Making decisions like that can get you out of the league,” Abdul-Rauf told Yahoo Sports. “‘Dare you try to influence people to to be socially or politically or religiously conscious? We don’t want that type of mentality to spread, so we have to make an example of that.'”
Abdul-Rauf pointed to several NBA players like LeBron James who have worn explicitly political t-shirts prior to games, noting that “resistance has become fashionable,” but added that players’ jobs still depend on owners’ approval, and contended that Kaepernick’s continued unemployment is a sign of that. Abdul-Rauf himself did continue to play after his controversy, but his game was never the same, and he was out of the league for good shortly thereafter.
Those were different days in which Abdul-Rauf sat down, days prior to 9/11. Both support for his right to sit and opposition to his perceived disrespect of the flag have only intensified since then. He faced a shortened career and sustained criticism for his stance, but to his credit, he doesn’t regret his decision. It’ll be fascinating to see how Kaepernick presses forward in the coming years as well.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at email@example.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.