August marked three years since Colin Kaepernick chose to take a stand by taking a knee against racial injustice. As is the case with most matters of race in this country, few were willing to take him to task on the issues that he intended to bring to light. Instead, the method by which he chose to protest became the trigger for an age-old debate about the loyalties of Americans who dare to hold the country accountable to its ideals.
Criticism for Kaepernick and the number of athletes who joined him in kneeling before the flag rang loud, as it always has when patriotism is expressed in unnationalistic ways. The wide-spread conflation of those two concepts, patriotism and nationalism, was something I quickly wrapped my head around as a black boy attending a small, vastly white, religiously affiliated school in Georgia. The impetus in that school was placed on being a good Christian, knowing and celebrating this country’s present and its past and paying homage to the soldiers who fought under the American flag. Meanwhile, the America I was learning about at home—the America I would need to know in order to survive—starkly juxtaposed the America I was being taught about at school.
I don’t remember exactly at what age my dad told me the story of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. But I do remember still being young and naive enough to put salt in my shoes, just like Michael Jordan did as he waited for his late growth spurt. If you know me, you know that growth spurt never came. But while my hoop dreams dwindled, I never forgot about Abdul-Rauf’s protest—similar to that of Kaepernick, but in many ways requiring even more sacrifice.
“You can’t be for God and be for oppression.”
Abdul-Rauf said those words after then-NBA Commissioner David Stern suspended him without pay for “failing to line up in a dignified posture” during the singing of the Star Spangled Banner. Prior to his protest, he had already made a name for himself in the NBA. Formerly known as Chris Jackson before converting to Islam, he was not only unique in his spiritual journey, but also unique in his talents on the court. His ability to manipulate the basketball, shoot from anywhere and get from one end of the court to the other with quicksilver pace has only been replicated by a few NBA superstars since—Steph Curry is one of them. He also did all of this while battling Tourette’s syndrome. At the time, he was considered unguardable, leading the Denver Nuggets in scoring and dropping 32 points in a game on the real life cheat-code that was Jordan’s ’96 Bulls.
61 days passed in that 1995-96 season before his absence during the National Anthem was noticed. As the league and the nation directed its attention to his protest, Abdul-Rauf consulted with fellow Muslims and decided to return to the court for the anthem. But he would stand, his hands cupped in front of his face, as he prayed in traditional Islamic fashion during the anthem. All the while, crowds continued to boo and whistle—ironically, drowning out the national anthem—and the Nuggets front office quietly took steps to quiet him. While Islamophobic and racist threats against his life continued to pour in from across the country, the NBA conspired to strip him of his livelihood.
Like Kaepernick, Abdul-Rauf would soon after be robbed of the prime years of his career in a league that makes its money off black bodies, yet suffers from a severe lack of black voices at the executive level. His playing time steadily declined until his stat sheet read all zeros. He, like Kaepernick, was blackballed from the league. But the platforms that granted Kaepernick’s supporters a voice in this debate didn’t exist at the time of Abdul-Rauf’s protest. At the time, athlete activism wasn’t nearly as accepted or profitable as it is today. Abdul-Rauf lost millions of dollars, perhaps because he was willing to go first, but more likely because very few in the league were willing to follow. Knowing now all that he would have to endure and that the story of his sacrifices would be relatively forgotten—at least among my generation—he says he’d do it all over again.
One of the virtues of social media is getting to see who the people you once knew turn out to be. Three years ago, when the Kaepernick protests began, I had a clear window into how alternate realities in America come to be. As I scrolled through the posts and reposts from my former schoolmates about respecting the flag and our veterans, I waited for a mere mention of racial injustice. It was clear that their America never was America to me.
The irony in all of this was that, in the reality I was living in, two veterans in particular were in large part why I landed on the opposite end of this polarizing debate. Both of my grandfathers served in the Korean War. In 1952, my maternal grandfather returned home from his 30 combat missions as an aerial observer in hostile enemy territory. His various air medals and willingness to put his life on the line for his country, though, weren’t enough for him to be granted the full privileges of the G.I. Bill. My grandfathers were dutiful servants to this country and to that flag—but when they returned home, they were still black men above everything else.
When I stand on Pickard Field, with the Star Spangled Banner washing over my ears, I bow my head in reflection and I remember my grandfathers. I remember Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. I remember Colin Kaepernick. I remember what it really means to love one’s country. And as I lift my head to look at the flag, I remember that this dream that the dreamers dreamed is still just that.
Editor’s Note, 9/16/2019: A previous version of this article misstated the name of the NBA commissioner who suspended Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf.