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Before Colin Kaepernick, the NBA’s Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf took a stand on anthem

Colin Kaepernick isn't the first pro athlete to refuse to stand for anthem. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf did it, and views on him have changed. | Getty Images

With the NFL preseason underway, talk about the upcoming football season has focused on politics as much as on the sport itself.

Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick gained widespread attention in 2016 when he chose to kneel in silence, rather than stand, during the national anthem as a protest of racial injustice in America.

Some have accused him of being unpatriotic and ungrateful for the service of American soldiers and argued that millionaire athletes should stay out of politics.

Supporters have applauded him for his bravery drawing attention to institutionalized racism. After that season, Kaepernick opted out of his contract with the 49ers. He has been a free agent since then and hasn’t played.

This is not the first time a professional athlete sparked controversy by refusing to stand for the anthem.

In the 1995-1996 NBA season, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, then with the Denver Nuggets, drew attention for a similar protest. When players and fans stood for the anthem, he sometimes sat. Other times, he stood but with his back to the flag. Abdul-Rauf, an African-American Muslim, argued that the flag represented a long history of discrimination and hate.

I remember the controversy well. In the winter of 1996, I started my first job out of college as a low-budget television producer for the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, which was housed in the Downtown Islamic Center.

Ignoring taunts from the United Center crowd, then-Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf prays during the national anthem before a game against the Bulls on March 15, 1996. | AP
Ignoring taunts from the United Center crowd, then-Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf prays during the national anthem before a game against the Bulls on March 15, 1996. | AP

Within days, I –– the council’s first full-time employee and office manager –– was bombarded with calls from reporters wanting a statement about Abdul-Rauf’s protests.

My diverse Muslim community in Chicago and across the country was split. Some praised Abdul-Rauf, comparing his actions to Muhammad Ali’s refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam War.

Others criticized his approach, saying it would turn people against him, his stance and Muslims as Islamophobia rose after the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993.

As time went on, Abdul-Rauf decided to stand for the anthem but lowered his head and raised his hands in prayer. He was fined by the NBA, and critics suggested he had given up his politics, while supporters believed he was seeking a more productive way to make his point.

Despite Abdul-Rauf playing well and leading the league in free-throw percentage, the Nuggets traded him after the season. His NBA career fizzled, and he played for leagues in Italy, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Omer M. Mozaffar. | Provided photo
Omer M. Mozaffar. | Provided photo

Abdul-Rauf now lives in Atlanta and is co-captain of Three Headed Monsters, a team in the BIG3, a 3-on-3 half court basketball league whose players largely are former NBA stars.

Because of the attention given to Kaepernick’s protests, Abdul-Rauf is gaining new fame. But now it seems the larger Muslim community is almost unified in its support of Abdul-Rauf, who has been invited to speak at Islamic centers across the country, including appearances earlier this year in Chicago and in Willowbrook.

Why the change? Many celebrate the integrity of the choice. Like Ali, Abdul-Rauf gave up his lucrative career rather than give up his convictions.

There is something deeper, too, regarding American patriotism. Muslims, whether from indigenous or immigrant backgrounds, are challenged so often about our loyalty that it seems there are many whom we will never satisfy.

There are those who will never accept us and will dismiss our love for our cities and country. So, in the minds of many Muslims, that frees us to make thorny political stances that center on improving our cities and country.

So, ultimately, Muslims may see Abdul-Rauf’s (and Kaepernick’s) choices as a statement of love for America. If there was no love, there would be no need to protest, just grab your pay and leave.

Thus I see the protests as statements of love — not hatred — for America and what it can be.

Omer M. Mozaffar is the Muslim chaplain at Loyola University Chicago.