“People don’t realize what’s really going on in this country. There are a lot of things that are going on that are unjust, (things) people aren’t being held accountable for. And that’s something that needs to change. That’s something that this country stands for: freedom, liberty and justice for all.”
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was coming off the season of his life. The starting point guard on a young Denver Nuggets squad led by the legendary Dikembe Mutombo and sharpshooter Dale Ellis, he’d razzle-dazzled his way to averages of 19 points and 7 assists a game on shooting percentages that raised more than a few eyebrows. Only a handful of players ever achieved 90% from the free-throw line over a full season, and Abdul-Rauf had already done it three times in his young career. He’d also detonated on Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls that season to the tune of 32 points, handing them a rare loss in a year they went 72-10. Yeah, that Bulls team.
Two years later Abdul-Rauf was out of the league, all but forgotten. And in the telling words of NBA executive Bryan Colangelo, “it (had) nothing to do with basketball.”
In the spring of 1996, the league was mired in sudden turmoil. Members of the local media in Denver had started to notice something strange about the Nugget point guard’s pregame routine, and it quickly became a hot topic across the nation. Rather than saluting the flag during the national anthem, Abdul-Rauf would instead do some casual stretching or simply stand there avoiding eye contact with the flag. He was spurning the conventional decorum of pregame patriotic ritual, and it was no accident. A converted Muslim, Abdul-Rauf explained that honoring the American flag contradicted his belief system, given the horrors committed in its name around the world.
“I couldn’t stand for a flag that represented tyranny and oppression. Not just from a domestic perspective but from a global one. It’s supposed to represent equality and justice for all, and I believe the flag is a symbol that’s supposed to represent the character of the people. When that character is not in line with what I believe in, then I’m opposed to that symbol. I couldn’t see myself standing and still can’t.”
His desire for justice went unrewarded: during the off-season the Nuggets promptly traded him to the Sacramento Kings in a move that made little sense from a basketball perspective. Mahmoud saw his minutes take a precipitous drop over the next two seasons, much to the confusion of opposing coaches who’d spent the previous week game-planning for his prolific shooting abilities. In many ways he was a beta version of Stephen Curry, a quick and crafty point guard with an exceptional handle who could decimate defenses with furious shooting binges. (We see you, Phil Jackson.) Nonetheless, after the underwhelming spell in Sacramento Abdul-Rauf quickly became a short-lived relic of the mid-90s, with no other teams showing interest in his progressive skill-set.
He was all but expunged from memory.
The trajectory of Abdul-Rauf’s career is, in some ways, eerily similar to that of Colin Kaepernick, and the latter’s recent cause celebre has aroused some faint recollections of “that Muslim guy” who once protested American imperialism at the expense of his NBA career. These recollections, however, only arise on the dim fringes of the national debate in places like dusty Reddit threads, and more or less go unacknowledged in the world of talking heads and trending headlines. Perhaps the implications of this parallel are far too dire for the purveyors of our pop culture-is it possible that, in the last twenty years, two major pro athletes have had their careers derailed for exercising their first amendment rights in the public eye?
The primary criticism of Kap’s #TakeAKnee campaign seems to revolve around the idea that his protest is dishonorable towards all the soldiers overseas and veterans back home, as if the quarterback is engaging in an unseemly bit of recalcitrance that challenges the vanguard of American honor. The irony here is that constitutional dissent is as “American” as it gets, that the policies in question are far more a threat to our nation’s integrity than is the refusal of a public figure to partake in a symbolic ritual of patriotism. When our leaders digress from the path of liberty as set out by the founding documents, the person who brings this to our attention is certainly not the treasonous party, nor is he the one guilty of dishonoring the men and women of the military.
One of the most surprising things about the Kaepernick firestorm is that it originated in the NFL, which has more or less been proven to be an annexed department of the Department of Defense. In 2015, we learned that the DOD had spent nearly 7 million dollars on “paid patriotism” stunts at football games in the previous four years, a staggering sum when you consider the vanishing budget for education along with the ever-rising poverty rate. Manufactured worship of the Military Industrial Complex, apparently, is a more prized commodity than educated minds or social equality. Let’s not forget that Republicans and Democrats were united across party lines in approving an 80 billion increase in military spending just last month. The War Machine must remain well-oiled literally at all costs, even at the expense of the people it purports to protect. No wonder the NFL player who’s refused to stand for the anthem is suddenly out of work, possibly for good.
If you ask Abdul-Rauf, it doesn’t surprise him at all.
“It’s a process of just trying to weed you out. This is what I feel is going to happen to Kaepernick. They begin to try and put you in vulnerable positions. They play with your minutes, trying to mess up your rhythm. Then they sit you more. Then what it looks like is, well, the guy just doesn’t have it anymore, so we trade him.”
In a reality where patriotism is commodified and the meaning of democracy is sacrificed for the coercion of spectacle, maybe our discussions should go beyond the hot-button personalities and look, instead, at what they’ve drawn our attention to. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and most likely Colin Kaepernick have given up their playing careers in order for us to do so; the least we can do is listen in return.