Before Colin Kaepernick, there was Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. NBA fans likely remember Abdul-Rauf for his playing style, which was unique to the league in the 1990s and might be a better fit in today’s game, as well as his outspoken stance on faith, America, and the role that both of them played in the end of his playing career.
Kaepernick, a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, has made waves recently for his protest during the National Anthem. Rather than stand, Kaepernick has chosen to take a knee in what he feels has called attention to inequality in America. There have been outspoken critics and supporters of all kinds, in what has become a widely debated and discussed topic in sports media. In that sense, you could say that Kaepernick’s protest has been a success.
But long before Kaepernick ever stepped foot on an NFL field, Abdul-Rauf was shining on the court. Originally born as Chris Jackson, the 6’1” guard from LSU was drafted by the Denver Nuggets with the number three overall pick in the 1990 NBA draft. Abdul-Rauf, as he would become known after converting to the Muslim faith, was a dynamic scorer for a man of his size, in a more similar mold to modern players such as Stephen Curry or Damian Lillard. In his prime years from 1993-1996, Abdul-Rauf would average 18 points per game with 37 percent shooting from three-point range.
In his first 52 games of the 1995-96 season, Abdul-Rauf had averaged 19.8 points in 36.9 minutes per game, starting all 52. But his career took a major turn in March of ’96 when news got around of his personal National Anthem protest. Abdul-Rauf’s faith and personal belief that the American flag was viewed around the world as a symbol of oppression made it increasingly difficult for him to suffer through standing and honoring the flag, according to his interview with The Undefeated.
“You can’t be for God and for oppression. It’s clear in the Quran, Islam is the only way,” he said at the time. “I don’t criticize those who stand, so don’t criticize me for sitting.”
At first, his protest began simply by not joining his team on the bench until after the anthem had been sung. But as word spread, the NBA decided to come down hard on the player—Abdul-Rauf was fined $32,000 for refusing to join his team for the anthem.
On March 12, 1996, commissioner David Stern passed down a one-game suspension to Abdul-Rauf for his refusal to stand. Two days later, the NBA compromised, forcing Abdul-Rauf to stand during the playing of the national anthem, but allowing him to close his eyes and look downward. Abdul-Rauf decided to say a Muslim prayer quietly to himself instead, but the damage had been done.
Indeed, while the NBA and the Nuggets ceded to Abdul-Rauf and came to a public agreement, his career went into a sudden tailspin. Despite being the team’s leading scorer and best player, his minutes dropped off. He was no longer in the starting lineup, and his final five games of the season saw him average just 22.2 minutes per game despite shooting averages of 51 percent from the field and 66.7 percent (4-for-6) from the three-point line.
Abdul-Rauf’s season ended in late March that year and the Nuggets would move him to the Sacramento Kings that offseason. He played well in his first season with the Kings, but by his second year found himself hardly playing. In the final year of his contract, the 28-year-old got into just 31 games and played just 17.1 minutes per game, averaging 7.3 points. A free agent after the 1997-98 season, Abdul-Rauf was waiting for a phone call that wouldn’t come.
“It’s a process of just trying to weed you out. This is what I feel is going to happen to [Kaepernick],” Abdul-Rauf said. “They begin to try to put you in vulnerable positions. They play with your minutes, trying to mess up your rhythm. Then they sit you more. Then what it looks like is, well, the guy just doesn’t have it anymore, so we trade him.”
Abdul-Rauf played briefly in Turkey in 1998-99 and sat out the 1999-00 season before returning to play for the Vancouver Grizzlies in 2000-01. But he played in a limited role yet again at 31 years old, averaging just 6.5 points despite shooting 48.8 percent from the field in 41 games with Vancouver.
And just like that, his NBA career was over. The anthem protest might not be the only thing that limited Abdul-Rauf’s playing career, however, as the NBA moving the three-point line further back prior to the 1997-98 season may have played a role in a dip in his outside shooting. But whether it was the protest, the fear of bad PR, or several different reasons, Abdul-Rauf was done.
The good news, according to an interview that Abdul-Rauf did with Dave Zirin of The Nation, is that he believes things may have changed enough that Kaepernick’s fate might be different than his.
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.
Sports and social activism have always been topics that mix like oil and water. Fans often want to be entertained by players, even going as far as to openly wish that the players were more honest and gave fewer cliche answers to reporters. But making a social protest in a manner that some find unpalatable is a line that few professional athletes dare to cross. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf did, and his career suffered badly for it.
The jury is still out on what will happen with Kaepernick, but if he’s able to find support among fans, media, and fellow players to truly enact change in our society, it’ll be because of the actions of athletes that came before him such as Abdul-Rauf.