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.
Bernie [head coach Bernie Bickerstaff] called me into his office. I go down and he begins to tell me “hey they want you to stand or they’re going to suspend you.” I said, “Well, Bernie, tell them to do what they have to do.” I’m so naive at the time, I’m like, “look, well now can I go get dressed?” He said, “No you’re suspended now.” I said, “Well, can I put my clothes on and support the team?” He said “No, you’re not even allowed on the premises.” So I left. And then that’s when it hit the news and the rest is history.
Do you think a player today would face a similar backlash or do you think they’d get a little more leeway?
I think times have changed. You look at the power of social media now. It’s hard to ignore the overwhelming support that Kaepernick is getting. When the [mainstream] media sees the support, they have to kind of bend a little bit, because if they don’t it’s going to be too obvious. So I think it’s a little different now. I still feel for Kaepernick though because with me, what happened was, they were very subtle with how they did things. My minutes began to decrease, because hey, let’s put him in vulnerable positions to try to mess up his rhythm, to look like the guy doesn’t have it anymore so basically, we kind of weed him out of the league this way. This is what I fear that may happen to him a little bit.
What role do you think Islamophobia played into the backlash that you faced?
It’s hard to say, exactly, but I definitely think that was a factor, not just being an athlete, being an African American athlete, but also having the tag of being a Muslim associated with it in light of how Muslims are perceived in the world and with what I was saying. We hear that there are moderate Muslims and the radical Muslims, well I was on the side of being portrayed as being this radical Muslim and that’s OK. Sometimes we have to be a little radical to shake things up, I don’t mind that tag. But I think that it had to do with how I was attacked and how I was perceived in what I was saying. I mean look, the statement that I made in 1996, I thought was a very balanced statement. I said, “Listen, this is what the flag represents, tyranny and oppression.” But am I saying everything in America is bad? No, there’s good that exists, but wherever the bad is, as a Muslim, even if it’s in Saudi Arabia, we don’t stand for it. That’s balanced, but of course, they focus on tyranny and oppression and they build a case against me with that.
I remember hearing you once say that The Autobiography of Malcolm X was the first book that you actually enjoyed reading. What did Malcolm mean to you and what is his enduring influence on your life?
Truth to Malcolm, meant more than anything; his personal well being, his family. And I think anytime you want to bring about a change, it has to be bigger than yourself. That’s why when I listen to the words of Kaepernick and he said, “This is bigger than football,” that hit me because that’s how change happens. I’m not saying that you don’t think about yourself and you don’t think about your family. Of course we do. But if we really want to make a change it has to go beyond us as human beings, our individual selves.
This is what really drew me to Malcolm…and I realized at a young age that I had to break these chains because I felt that I was doing the opposite, that there were things I wanted to say, things that I saw that were unjust, and I said to myself, “Why am I afraid? Why am I a coward? Why can’t I communicate this? Why can’t I say this?” And I had to slowly begin a process of doing that which eventually led to protesting the flag. I mention this all the time because I love this woman and her writings, Arundhati Roy, the Indian political activist and author, and she said: “Once you see something, you can’t unsee it. So to be silent, to say nothing, is just as political an act of speaking out. Either way you’re accountable. So we’re not saved through our silence, actually, the politics of silence is a negative one, we’re still accountable.”
And I said I don’t want to be on that side of history. I want to stand up for principles and I want to live and die with a free conscience and a free soul whether anybody likes it or not. I’m not always going to be right, I’m not always going to be eloquent, but I’m always going to try my best to stand up for what’s right and what’s just, whether people like it or not and so I began that process and that’s where it’s taken me and I don’t have any regrets with that. Despite all of the backlash and all of the setbacks, like one brother said, the setback ain’t nothing but a setup to a comeback, so that’s the way I’m looking at it.
You certainly didn’t have a lot of peers in 1996, a lot of fellow athletes to draw inspiration from when you took your stance, you really were a man apart at that time. Did you have any athlete activist from history who inspired you?
Oh my goodness, Muhammad Ali, front and center. No question, Muhammad Ali just represents those things, he was courageous, he was fearless, he spoke his mind. In a sense, didn’t care what you thought as long as he felt what he was doing what was right. Again, I say that in context. We always care, but when it’s all said and done, if I believe that I’m standing on a ground of truth, it is what it is, you’re just going to have to not like it, but I have to stand on that. He was definitely the athlete that I looked at, because growing up and seeing him, not just fight, but his character.
And even now when I think of people like Paul Robeson and stuff that he had to go through, there were a lot of athletes…John Carlos and those brothers, We have to respect that. We might not appreciate it now, and that’s the sad thing, sometimes we appreciate it years later, but hopefully we can reduce that time and we start appreciating it a little bit sooner, than maybe 30, 40, 50 years later when things happen. I think social media now, definitely helps, because you can’t ignore the support that’s out there for when these athletes do it. You have this young lady now, she’s a soccer player—Megan Rapinoe—that ended up supporting him. This is beautiful. I think, too, I was reading something the other day, that it would be great in times like this, you mentioned something earlier that usually it comes from those segments of society where people have the ghettos and people have been deprived when they make these types of stands, it would be beautiful if we could have people like her on the European side, you know, because everybody is being effected in some way shape or form. To show that support, it would be a great thing.
Thinking about your life, thinking about you growing up in Gulfport, Mississippi, there’s this history of the Ku Klux Klan, terrorizing your hometown, and right now we’re seeing this normalization of white supremacy through the Trump campaign, and I wanted to know if you had any thoughts about how to survive and combat this kind of organized white supremacy.
That’s a heavy question. People are getting killed [by police] right and left for having packs of cigarettes in their hands, very, very minor things. My question would be, and I don’t want to use the word violence, because I know sometimes that can be taken out of context, it can be looked at like out of control, but at some point, we have the right, we don’t need a piece of paper to tell us this, we have the right to defend ourselves as human beings in this country when we’re threatened. Even I think in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, it says if the government doesn’t fulfill the objectives…that it’s supposed to fulfill, then we have the right to change it with force. Even in this country, if you see someone being attacked or what have you, or there’s an injustice occurring, you can actually make a citizen’s arrest. There’s a physical confrontation there.
But let’s just face it, history is this way, Dave. When you’re dealing with persons from a position of power, they’re not going to just give it up, just having dialogue and sitting that the table all the time. We would love to think that this is just the case. Sometimes I take offense to that. It’s like almost trying to pacify us, I don’t think one thing will just do it. I don’t think calling your congressman and senators alone will do it. I don’t think having candle light vigils alone will do it. I don’t think armed conflict alone will do it, but I think it’s always combination of things that we have to see in order for people to say, “OK, enough is enough, let’s come together and sit down.” And history has been that way, it’s not just been one way. And it’s easy to say to someone that hasn’t gone through an experience, “Oh, you shouldn’t protest like this,” or you shouldn’t protest, when people are dying on the streets, when people are starving to death, when people are going broke, because you have to make a choice between paying your bills to save your life or your children’s life and having a roof over your head. We shouldn’t have to make these choices. How rich this country is, we shouldn’t have to make them and it bothers me every single day I wake up and I hear these stories.
At some point, people aren’t going to sit back and just keep praying about it. It’s like Frederick Douglass said: “I prayed for freedom for 20 years and I never received an answer until I started praying with my legs.” At some point, you got to say prayer alone won’t do it.
Last question, if you could say something to Colin Kaepernick through your phone, what would you say to him?
I would tell him I love him for the position that he’s taking and it seems like he definitely is an intelligent brother. I would just tell him, man, look for what it’s worth—not that he needs my voice or anybody’s voice—just stick to your principles, for those that don’t understand it now, eventually, if God wills, they will. You never know the impact that something like this is going to have on someone. So, basically that is what I would tell him. Just to keep going.
You can listen to audio of the full interview below.