Mahmoud’s Protest Revisited

This week, the big story in sports is the refusal of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to stand for the pregame national anthem in protest of racial inequality.  Kaerpenick’s explained that “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.  To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”  In other words, Kaepernick seems to be specifically protesting the recent police shootings of African Americans where no criminal charges have been brought against the officers (and, I assume, cases like Baltimore where officers have been charged but acquitted). The NFL has no rule requiring players to stand for the anthem and the 49ers have not condoned the protest but have stated that Kaepernick has the right to do whatever he wants.

The Kaepernick story is interesting because it somewhat mirrors the protest against the anthem that Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf undertook during the 1995-96 season with Denver Nuggets.  Many have referenced Abdul-Rauf’s protest with respect to the current story but I haven’t seen anyone really jump into the matter very deeply.  I thought it would be interesting to revisit the details of Abdul-Rauf’s saga to learn what issues really are at stake in these protests and how the protests might affect all sides.

Before turning to the details of Abdul-Rauf’s protest, it is important to understand his background.  Abdul-Rauf was born as Chris Jackson.  He grew up in poverty in Gulfport, Mississippi.  Jackson’s also was born with Tourrette’s Syndrome, which made life difficult for him, and manifested itself in compulsive behavior and body tics.  A 1993 Sports Illustrated feature explained how terrible this obsessive-compulsive behavior was for Abdul-Rauf each day: “He has been tying his shoes for 10 minutes now.  One shoelace must not touch the other before it is time.  Can’t have that.  He is frustrated from doing it over and over again.  There were times as a boy when he would be in tears over this.  It’s not his choice.  It’s the way it must be.”

But the Tourrette’s actually made Abdul-Rauf the great shooter he became:  “He must swish 10 straight shots before he leaves [the gym].  And not just any swish.  The net must snap perfectly.  If even one doesn’t swish to his absolute satisfaction, he must start over.  He will shoot until they all feel perfect”

Abdul-Rauf was a huge star at LSU, scoring 30.2 ppg as a freshman in 1988-89.  As a sophomore, he was paired with two freshmen seven-footers, Stanley Roberts and Shaquille O’Neal, who would both go on to be  pros (to varying degrees of success).  This team disappointed a bit, going only 23-9 and coming in third in the SEC.  LSU would lose in the first round of the SEC tournament and the second round of the NCAA tournament to Georgia Tech. This isn’t quite as bad as it sounds because Tech would ultimately go to the Final Four that year behind its own NBA talent lottery picks, Dennis Scott and Kenny Anderson (Brian Oliver and Malcolm Mackey also had a few NBA minutes).  Abdul-Rauf’s last college game was not a good one.  Bothered by a cold, he shot 5-15 from the field, scored only 13 points, and fouled out of the game.  Immediately after the game, he declared for the NBA draft.

Abdul-Rauf  was drafted third overall in the 1990 NBA draft by the Denver Nuggets.   Abdul-Rauf struggled his first two season in Denver.  He was overweight and did not fit offensively or defensively at the point guard slot.  He could score (21 pts per 36 minutes) but coach Paul Westhead was not a fan and advanced stats didn’t like him much either during that time (12.4 PER, -5.7 BPM).  It was one thing when Abdul-Rauf sat behind established pro Michael Adams as a rookie but Westhead wouldn’t even start him over journeyman Winston Garland in 1991-92.  In mid-1991-92, GM Bernie Bickerstaff publicly harangued Abdul-Rauf to reporters for complaints over playing time: “Chris Jackson is in the big leagues now. The decision was made to go pro, so that means you are a man.  We understand that he’s going to have some problems, like every rookie. But in the interim, some people are filling his head with garbage that he’s the greatest player on earth.  The bottom line is, ‘Let’s stop bitching and work and play basketball.’ “

After 1991-92, Westhead was fired and Abdul-Rauf worked very hard to change his status.  He lost 32 pounds in the off-season and came in and won the point guard slot under new coach Dan Issel.  Around the same time, Abdul-Rauf also converted to Islam and changed his name.

The changes in his life on and off the court seemed to help Abdul-Rauf as a player.  In 1992-93, he scored 19.2 ppg and 4.5 apg, sparking a solid run of four seasons where averaged about 18 ppg.  In 1995-96, Abdul-Rauf was 26 and peaking as a player, with career highs in points and assists and a memorable 51-point game against Utah.  In March 1996, some fans noticed that he had been stretching and bending during the national anthem or waiting in the locker room until the anthem was finished.

When questioned on the issue, Abdul-Rauf said that “[t]he flag represents tyranny and oppression” and that “[t]his 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.  It’s clear in the Koran, Islam is the only way.  I don’t criticize those who stand, so don’t criticize me for sitting.  I won’t waver from my decision.”

The problem was that the NBA, unlike the NFL, has a specific rule requiring players to stand in a “dignified posture” when the anthem is played.  Abdul-Rauf was suspended by the NBA and vowed never to back down.  The public mostly condemned his decision and labelled him as unappreciative of his pretty good position in society (not to mention the usual over-the-top jingoistic responses).  The heat was risen further when Hakeem Olajuwon and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stated that they did not agree with his interpretation of his religious obligation (as did the head of the Colorado Muslim Society).

The ACLU and the NBPA both moved to challenge the suspension because: (a) the NBA rule standing rule was not collectively bargained and (b) the rule violated Abdul-Rauf’s freedoms of speech and religion.  Perhaps recognizing the protracted battle helped nobody, the sides quickly reached a settlement where Abdul-Rauf would stand for the anthem but could close his eyes and pray.

Abdul-Rauf was booed mercilessly in the games after the compromise and received hate mail and death threats.  Four games later, Abdul-Rauf injured his foot against the Nets and did not play again for the rest of the season.   Despite being at his physical peak, the Nuggets dumped Abdul-Rauf to the Kings immediately after the season for a fading Sarunas Marciulionis and second-round pick (which ended being the solid Jeff McInnis).

Abdul-Rauf’s time in Sacramento was uneventfu in the protest department.  There were no disputes reported between him and the NBA thereafter.  On the court, things didn’t go well.  He was paired in the backcourt with Mitch Richmond, another primary scorer and they did not mesh well from Abdul-Rauf’s perspective.  In 1996-97, Richmond continued to score at the usual rate but Abdul-Rauf’s stats tumbled to 13.7 ppg and 2.5 ag in 28.4 mpg.  It was clear that he just didn’t pass enough to be a regular point guard.  In 1997-98, Abdul-Rauf lost his starting job and then missed over three months to the flu and an ulcer in his eye.   When he did play, Abdul-Rauf shot an abysmal .377% from the field.  After the season, Abdul-Rauf signed with a Turkish team and was ostensibly out of the NBA at age 28.

The Turkish team apparently started bouncing checks and Abdul-Rauf stopped playing a few months later.  He didn’t play anywhere again until 2000-01, when the Vancouver Grizzlies took a flier on Abdul-Rauf.  He played only 12 mpg and but shot pretty well (.488 fg%).  Abdul-Rauf wasn’t happy with the sparse playing time and told reporters in March 2001: “I don’t think they have any intention of playing me, but that’s O.K.  I had a talk with [coach Sidney Lowe] and I said, ‘I work for my Creator.  That means I’ll have more discipline and work harder than if I did it for you or the team.’  He didn’t understand.  He thought I was undermining the team.”   At that time, Abdul-Rauf reflected on the anthem issue and said he had no regrets “but I’ve learned in Islam that you want to consider all possibilities before you make a decision.  There was a better decision to make.”

Abdul-Rauf had no more NBA gigs after Vancouver but did play abroad for several years.  He also returned to Gulfport and attempted to open a mosque and outreach center, from which he tried to help locals get basic services that were not available in this impoverished area.   Abdul-Rauf had trouble getting permits and had other push back that ultimately caused him to give up and move to Atlanta, where he currently resides.  Periodically, he has been interviewed and has offered different thoughts about the protest than he did in 2001.

In an excellent 2007 long form article by Robert Sanchez of 5280.com, Abdul-Rauf revealed that he kept all the mail that received as a result of the protest (most of it unfavorable) and he was still slowly opening each piece and absorbing its contents (both good and bad).   Abdul-Rauf gave his most thoughtful explanation for his protest, which some questioned because he was not exactly struggling in America: “Just because I can do it doesn’t make it a dream. The American Dream is when it’s fair. When you have just a small minority controlling the wealth in this world, and the majority is struggling to make ends meet, that’s not fair. I know what it’s like not to have health care, to be starving when I’m in the house.”  Sanchez also set forth some of Abdul-Rauf’s other beliefs relating to 9/11 and American foreign policy that most Americans would not consider reasonable.

In 2010, Abdul-Rauf told HoopsHype.com that he decided not to stand during the anthem through a “gradual process.”  After doing his own studying he said that “I don’t want to be like some type of robot, just doing things because other people are doing it. I began to question, why am I doing what I do? Do I believe that this is the right thing to do? So I came to this decision. I said, ‘No.’“   Abdul-Rauf stated that he had no regrets:  “I went through it for a reason – to get where I’m at now. I wouldn’t change anything. I think I’ve become a better person because of it.”  He did think, however, that “[a]fter the national anthem fiasco, nobody [in the NBA] really wanted to touch me.”

So, what does Abdul-Rauf’s story teach us?  A few reflections:

-Was Abdul-Rauf’s protest a success?  This is really depends on what he was hoping to accomplish.  Abdul-Rauf initially stated he couldn’t stand for the anthem because of his religion but this basis was strongly countered by some in his faith, who rejected his justification.  If Abdul-Rauf’s goal was to get a conversation started and to stand out, though, he certainly accomplished that goal.  The NBA, to its credit, ultimately managed this dispute very well.  Abdul-Rauf was entrenched in his position originally.  By getting religious authorities on its side and offering a reasonable compromise, the NBA really was able to quickly deescalate the situation.

-Did the protest shorten Abdul-Rauf’s career?  Probably but…Abdul-Rauf was never the star some saw him as.  He was a great shooter but he really did little else on the court.  He was too small to defend most players and he was not a great passer for a shooting guard, let alone a point guard.  In fact, Abdul-Rauf’s BPM was negative every year in of his career except his controversial 1995-96 peak, where he was 4.3 OBPM but -3.1 DPM.  Despite his great touch, Abdul-Rauf also wasn’t a particularly good three-point shooter (he was at 39% the three seasons the NBA moved the line in but tanked to 20% when the line moved back).  It is also worth remembering that his career didn’t abruptly end based solely on the anthem issue.  He played poorly as a starter in 1996-97 for Sacramento and then played worse and was injured in 1997-98.  When you combine the controversy with his skill set, NBA teams just weren’t going to take the risk.  Had Abdul-Rauf been able to maintain his mid-1990s peak, he probably would’ve had a longer NBA career a la a Dana Barros type back up.

-So, what does this mean for Kaepernick today?  The NFL is not yet putting pressure on Kaepernick to change his practices.  This will initially prevent a stare down like Abdul-Rauf had with the NBA.  But the NBA rule served a purpose.  The NBA probably doesn’t actually care who stands but knew/knows that the public heat will create bad publicity for all parties.  Kaepernick is already feeling criticism.  If the outside criticism mounts, the NFL might have to act and, knowing Roger Goodell, he won’t handle the issue quite as deftly as David Stern did and Kaepernick’s future career will not be rosy.

On Kaepernick’s side, he will eventually have to end the protest.  He will eventually be cut by the 49ers because his contract is huge and they didn’t want to start him anyway.  In order to get a new job, any new team will want any side issues resolved and Kaepernick will have to accede because he doesn’t have the leverage of a star player.

The lurking issue is what the leagues would do if a superstar decided to engage in protest.  If LeBron James or Tom Brady made a loud political statement, his clout might force an even more epic confrontation.  Of course, superstars have too many endorsements that cut across all segments of American society that they would be reluctant to go so far.

What we have learned from these situations is that the answers lie in the middle. Both of these protests have an antagonistic element to them and infuriate the jingoistic set, who will be prone to overreact the other way.  My hope is that the NFL (or someone) will try to get Kaepernick to move from silent protest to actual outreach.  As Carmelo Anthony and Jabbar recently noted, the only way issues can be solved is with compromise, mutual understanding, and constructive dialogue. Protest has a purpose but it can only get you so far.

 

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