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Nowhere does it say that standing up for something that you believe in will be easy. If anything, the consensus remains that taking steps outside of societal norms only leads to more difficulty, both now and in the future. But when the results from taking a position come to fruition, the value of the tradeoff quickly becomes visible. The tradition of African American protest, both in sport and in the nation in general, often tends to follow this game plan. Much ignored in this discussion is the realization that not all protest ends victoriously. In order to sort through both the good and the bad of the African American protest tradition, one must first understand how it is identified. A chronicle the story of ex-NBA player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf helps explain the tradition, detailing the trials and tribulations of a man who stood up for his beliefs.
Before one can begin to understand the mindset of those involved with the advancement of black ideals in America, an understanding of the grand idea must be developed. Although present before and during the Civil War, African American protest came to the forefront near the turn of the century. Recognizable figureheads such as W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, and Jack Johnson burst onto the scene, each bringing their own unique viewpoints to the national stage. Sometimes with education (DuBois was the first black graduate of Harvard), sometimes with athleticism (Jack Johnson was the first black heavyweight champion), sometimes with moderation (B.T. Washington often thrived with the sponsorship of powerful whites), black candidacy in the election of the American way was not to be ignored ever again.
Time has afforded more opportunity for blacks, both in the sporting and national arenas. Still, though, there are significant steps to be made. The progress for overall equality has moved at a snail’s pace despite the work of leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King and Jackie Robinson. The tradition of African American protest rests in the hands of today’s blacks. But what exactly is the African American protest tradition? Many detail the successes of the above-mentioned leaders and the social progress of these efforts when drawing up a definition. The “tradition” (as it will be noted), was often used to explain the songs and chants derived from the protests in the time leading up to the Civil War. In that contest, the “tradition” is defined as a vocal and deliberate public demonstration of disapproval for a societal occurrence. Although this definition holds true through much of the work done by DuBois, Robinson, and King, the “tradition” has evolved over time.
The advancement of media, especially in the last forty years, has changed the face of the “tradition.” Silent, non-active protests are now something that dominates the ideology. Using the sit-ins of the ‘60s and ‘70s as a roadmap, many of today’s rebels are quietly defiant. Although it is common for these demonstrations to end unsuccessfully, it is rare for the ineffective efforts to be noticed as part of the “tradition.” The case of Chris Jackson (aka Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf) explains how a fruitless battle can still work to build the “tradition.”
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was born Chris Jackson to a cafeteria-worker mother and an absent father in Gulfport, Mississippi in 1969. The middle of three boys, Chris, had to overcome enormous obstacles to get to the NBA. In his childhood, Jackson battled extreme poverty and Tourette’s syndrome, which resulted in uncontrollable body movements. The “tics” led to constant teasing from other children and many adults. Jackson found refuge on the basketball court.
Hailed as one of the greatest high school players to ever come out of Mississippi, Jackson was mentioned on numerous high school All-America lists. He was honored as the Player of the Year in the state of Mississippi and accepted a basketball scholarship to Louisiana State University. There he wasted no time making a mark, averaging 30.2 ppg (points per game) his freshman season. Before all was said and done, he was a two-time first team All-American with and had even graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. Jackson was the brightest star on a team that included eventual NBA MVP Shaquille O’Neal. Known as “CJ” at LSU, Jackson had a bright future ahead of him.
The Denver Nuggets drafted the smallish Jackson (5’ 11’’) third overall in the 1990 NBA Draft. He was a solid contributor, averaging 14.1 ppg his rookie year. He caught stride in his third NBA season, averaging 19.2 ppg and earning the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. But Jackson’s NBA legacy would not rest on the shoulders of his shooting merits. Prior to the 1991 season, Jackson converted to Islam. From that point on, Jackson was known as Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. It was this transition that led Abdul-Rauf to make one of the biggest political statements in the history of the NBA.
Fast forward to 1996. In the midst of his best NBA season statistically (19.2 ppg, 6.8 apg), Abdul-Rauf abruptly stopped standing for the national anthem prior to games. The Denver news media quickly picked up on the practice, and fans began to take offense in March of ’96. Arguing that the practice conflicted with his Muslim beliefs, Abdul-Rauf referenced the Koran forbidding participation in any “nationalistic ritualism.” The NBA stepped in and suspended Abdul-Rauf for one game for refusing to abide by a league mandate that requires “players to line up in a dignified posture for the anthem.” The two sides made amends and Abdul-Rauf was forced to stand, but he did so with his head down and buried in his hands in prayer. The actions were scrutinized by everyone from media to teammates to coaches.
Although the stance could be noted as noble to many, the overall patriotism of the United States ended up doing in Abdul-Rauf. Things were never really the same for him after the protest. Despite having his best season and leading the league in minutes played, Abdul-Rauf was traded to Sacramento in the offseason. Fan scrutiny would continue and his playing time would dwindle. Three seasons after his monumental stance, Abdul-Rauf was out of the NBA.
Adbul-Rauf’s position was something not seen very often in the world of sports. Athletes have made statements for political reform, equal opportunity, and global outreach. And, for the most part, these protests have been met with limited jeering and open arms. Where Abdul-Rauf met opposition was not in the fact that his protest was religious in nature. His downfall was the fact that his protest involved a symbol of the freedom, the American flag. Case in point is the irony of the entire debacle. If the flag stands for freedom, why is Abdul-Rauf not allowed to practice his right to not stand up? This event shows that much of the rhetoric of the United States actually has a second side that only exists when the ideas of the democracy are threatened. Apparently, Abdul-Rauf pushed the bar too far. For that he paid with his career.
The history of the African American protest tradition in sports is riddled with success stories. Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby (the first black American League player) integrated baseball. Texas Western brought blacks into the college basketball mainstream. Arthur Ashe and Tiger Woods led African Americans into tennis and golf venues world-wide. In the stories that are remembered, the black protest is always successful in making a societal difference. The fact is, though, that not all that stand up for a cause are revered. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf’s religious stance barely scratched the surface of change. Many may forecast that his efforts only poured salt into a wound that the American people did not want to realize was there. Abdul-Rauf is now forgotten by much of the population, but his effort remains a part of the African American protest tradition nonetheless. Rehashing his story allows us to realize the errs of our ideology as a people.