NBA legend and national columnist Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is one of the few Americans with both historical perspective and the personal experience to intelligently discuss the national media firestorm set off by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernik’s prominent use of free expression to sit during the rendition of America’s national anthem before an NFL pre-season game this weekend.
What should horrify Americans is not Kaepernick’s choice to remain seated during the national anthem, but that nearly 50 years after Muhammad Ali was banned from boxing for his stance and Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s raised fists caused public ostracization and numerous death threats, we still need to call attention to the same racial inequities. Failure to fix this problem is what’s really un-American here.
In 1971, Abdul-Jabbar won an NBA Championship in Milwaukee, and the next day publicly converted to Islam and changed his name from Lew Alcindor to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar causing an uproar about both his name and his religion simultaneously. As Abdul-Jabbar wrote in Al-Jazeera a few years ago, American fans back then reacted harshly to his choice of freedom of religion, just like they’re displeased with Kaepernick today:
The question I’m often asked is why I had to pick a religion so foreign to American culture and a name that was hard for people to pronounce. Some fans took it very personally, as if I had firebombed their church while tearing up an American flag.
But Kareem’s main point speaks to the evolution of America’s complex race relations, rooted in his unique experience as a lightning rod athletic figure in America, who ultimately became one of the best basketball players of all-time, and certainly the most durable. Authoritarians fiercely criticizing Colin Kaepernick for making his political statement on the job as a national sports figure, may never understand the football player’s gesture, but our country’s athletes have long used their celebrity status to demonstrate publicly in favor of equality and justice off the field:
One sign of the maturation of American society is the willingness of those in the public eye, especially athletes, to openly take a political stand, even if it could harm their careers. The modern era of athletes speaking out began in 1967 with Muhammad Ali refusing to be drafted to fight other people of color. That year, I joined with football great Jim Brown, basketball legend Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali and other prominent athletes for what was dubbed “The Cleveland Summit.” Together we tried to find ways to help Ali fight for his right of political expression. I don’t know how much we were able to accomplish on a practical level, but seeing black athletes in support of Ali inspired others to speak out. The following year at the 1968 Olympics, African Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists during the medal ceremony as a protest to the treatment of people of color in the United States. In 2014, NBA players LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Jarrett Jack, Alan Anderson, Deron Williams and Kevin Garnett and NFL players from the Rams and Browns wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts during warm-ups for a game to protest police killings of unarmed blacks.
If America wants to worship athletes as idols on the field, than the price they must occasionally pay is giving these usually college educated individuals the attention of a national broadcast audience, along time at the microphone or in the camera’s spotlight, and if Americans want to watch those performers for entertainment, from time to time they will have to listen to their political concerns too.
The main insight of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s powerful defense of Colin Kaepernick is that what he is doing falls squarely into the mainstream of American athletics, and squarely under America’s unique First Amendment rights to free speech and free expression, even if that is unfortunately offensive to false patriots who insist on masking their racism in empty nationalism.
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