Before Colin Kaepernick, there was Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. In 1996, the Denver Nuggets guard said that on principle he could not stand for the national anthem because the flag in many countries represents “oppression and tyranny.” He was fined, suspended, attacked, and yet to this day has no regrets. Today he says he “stands with Kaepernick 1000 percent” and explains why we “sometimes we have to be a little radical to shake things up.” Below is an edited version of our interview. To listen to the audio in its entirety, please click the link at the bottom the page.
Dave Zirin: What was your reaction to the anthem protest of Colin Kaepernick and do you support his actions?
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf: My initial reaction, I was excited simply because I think it’s needed to spark a debate. It’s good to see athletes, in particular, speak out. Our contracts and endorsements have somewhat become tools to keep us silent. So I was excited that he took the stand and I’m for him, 1,000%. No question.
It’s pretty clear what’s pushed Kaepernick to act: the Black Lives Matter movement and the movement against police brutality. What was the catalyst for you, in 1996, to take your much lonelier stand?
It was a combination of factors. For me, being a Muslim, I don’t believe in giving my allegiance to anyone or anything but God. Also I was reading a lot, everything from Noam Chomsky to Gore Vidal, and I started to hear what they had to say about what was going on not just domestically, but globally, I began to have an issue.… the flag and the anthem are symbols that reflect the character of a nation and if it’s supposed to represent freedom and equality and justice for all, and I don’t see where that’s being represented. I couldn’t see myself honestly standing up for something like that. So that’s what compelled me to make that move and I still hold that to this day… What was amazing was that some of the same people that came out against me at the time, even military personnel, didn’t understand that the stand was also for them because so many of them, can’t get medical care, a lot of them are homeless and I think that’s more disrespectful, people that have gone and come back and have to even put up with that nonsense. So it was for them too.
In researching what happened to you in 1996, you were fined, you were suspended and yet there the NBA had no rule against not standing for the national anthem. Why do you think they came down on you so hard?
Well, it goes back, I think, to just the simple fact that as athletes, we’re not expected to [have] social or political positions. It seems like it’s OK to fall into other stereotypes. You have people on rape charges and that’s OK, we can accept that. But to be socially conscious, like a [Chicago Bulls guard] Craig Hodges or whoever, this is unacceptable. So let’s make an example to discourage other athletes from doing the same thing. And this is why I think it went down that way.