San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is taking heat for his announcement that he won't stand for "The Star-Spangled Banner" as part of a protest against American racism and police brutality.
In a statement, Kaepernick said he was "not going to show pride for a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color."
Most athletes have not taken as bold a stance as Kaepernick, even though many of them have recently become much more explicitly political. In fact, you'd have to go back at least two decades before you find a similar act of athletic defiance against the national anthem. It came from NBA player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf.
Abdul-Rauf, born Chris Jackson in Gulfport, Miss., decided to convert to Islam in 1993 at the age of 24, the climax of a spiritual journey that began while reading "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" in college.
"I had a lot of questions with my Christian background while growing up," Abdul-Rauf told USA Today in 1996. "I felt like I was being someone I wasn't meant to be."
Malcolm's words filled [his] head: You're not to be so blind with patriotism that you can't face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it…. Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you're a man, you take it…. Time is on the side of the oppressed today, it's against the oppressor. Truth is on the side of the oppressed today, it's against the oppressor. You don't need anything else.
After his conversion, Abdul-Rauf's play improved dramatically; at the end of the 1992-1993 season he was named the NBA's Most Improved player. He signed a five-year, $13 million contract extension, and went on to lead his team in scoring, and the entire league in free-throw percentage.
As his performance improved, his faith — and his questioning of what America stood for — only seemed to deepen. And one day, in the middle of the 1995-1996 NBA season, Abdul-Rauf told the Nuggets that he no longer wanted to stand for the national anthem. He said he believed recognizing the flag during "The-Star Spangled Banner" was "nationalistic ritualism."
At first, his absence during the ceremony went unnoticed; the NBA had told the Nuggets to handle the situation discreetly. It was only during the trial of Timothy McVeigh for the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing that callers into a local radio station began to lambast Abdul-Rauf for his supposed lack of patriotism. On March 10, 1996, he sat down in the middle of the anthem. After the game, he told reporters that he considered the flag "a symbol of oppression, of tyranny" and that he would continue to refuse to stand for the anthem.
"I'm a Muslim first and a Muslim last," Abdul-Rauf said. "My duty is to my creator, not to nationalistic ideology."
A few hours later, the NBA suspended him without pay indefinitely, citing a rule that required players, coaches and trainers to "stand and line up in a dignified posture" during the U.S. and Canadian anthems.
The suspension would last just one day—Abdul-Rauf and the league came to an agreement whereby he would stand but pray silently into his hands.
But the act sparked a national debate.
"In suspending star player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf for his refusal to stand during the playing of the national anthem, the National Basketball Association has sidelined religious liberty as well," the head of the ACLU said in a statement after the suspension.
The NBA players union said it supported Abdul-Rauf's choices.
"Our union respects the free expression rights of any individual, and NBA players are no different," it said. "We support Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, and we support the American flag, which symbolizes Mahmoud's right to take precisely the action he is taking."
But many others called him a traitor. As one letter writer wrote, according to 5280, "You need to go to another country that does not have the freedom that we do."
As the New York Times notes, Abdul-Rauf ultimately endured an arguably worse fate for a basketball player than getting booed (as he was vociferously for the rest of his career): He faded into obscurity, getting traded during the '96-'97 to the Scramento Kings, and finishing out his career for the moribund Vancouver Grizzlies. He eventually signed up to play for various international clubs, where his lack of reputation was both a blessing and a curse.
Abdul-Rauf finished his NBA career as, technically, the greatest free-throw shooter of all time, with a rate of 90.5%. But as SBNation has explained, Basketball Reference.come won't include him on it's top list because he fell 39 free throws short of the minimum necessary to be counted.
Today, Abdul-Rauf is in real estate, according to Denver's 5280 magazine, and also does speaking engagements and basketball clinics. But he maintains an active social media presence on on Facebook that is filled with uplifting messages about blacks in America as well as links to videos highlighting police abuse.
He has not yet publicly commented on the Kaepernick situation, and attempts to reach him were unsuccessful. But in his most recent post, he linked to an article at Fusion's sister site The Root with the headline, "Star-Spangled Bigotry: The Hidden Racist History of the National Anthem."
"Must read," Abdul-Rauf commented.
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.