NBA star who protested the national anthem in 1996 discusses free speech and standing on principle

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Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf chatted with Yale students after his talk on campus.

Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback, ignited a national debate this year by not standing when the national anthem is played before football games. This is familiar territory for former NBA star Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (who changed his name from Chris Jackson). In March 1996 Abdul-Rauf, an African-American convert to Islam, refused to stand for the anthem, saying it represented oppression instead of liberty, and that his Muslim faith did not require him to honor any nation, flag, or anthem. His suspension by the NBA was national news, and the ensuing arguments mirrored the debates around Kaepernick today.

Abdul-Rauf discussed his experiences following an Oct. 26 screening of the documentary “By the Dawn’s Early Light: Chris Jackson’s Journey to Islam.” The event was moderated by Zareena Grewal, associate professor of American studies and religious studies, who directed and produced the film. A diverse audience of students and community members of various faiths filled the Luce Hall auditorium for the screening and discussion.

“There are so many similarities” to Kaepernick’s situation, Abdul-Rauf told the audience. “But the difference with him and me was now you have social media, and you can’t necessarily hide all of the support. I got death threats — but I had support too.” Today, he noted, social media shows that people taking unpopular stances also have support among the public. “That’s a good thing,” he said. “You really see the support now.”

Asked what advice he would give to an athlete taking a controversial public stance today, Abdul-Rauf demurred. “I’m very skeptical about giving advice, in particular to an African-American athlete. Oftentimes it’s assumed that somebody told you what to do, and you don’t have a mind of your own.”

The NBA star urged the audience to “go for broke” in standing up for their beliefs.

Considering his actions two decades ago, Abdul-Rauf said, “I feel even more confirmed” that he made the right decision. He added that he met recently with Kaepernick, who told Abdul-Rauf he feels “the most free he’s ever felt” as a result of his own protest.

One audience member asked about Abdul-Rauf’s mental evolution as he prepared to take his stand. “My mother had an eighth-grade education, and so I didn’t have confidence intellectually to even ask questions in class,” he reflected. “The more I began to read and become aware of things, I started to develop a conscience, and I began to share with people. That way you find out who thinks like you and shares the same type of ideas. Then you begin to network with people, and through that you begin to develop confidence. And that confidence turns eventually into courage.”

Another audience member asked Abdul-Rauf how he maintained that courage in the face of criticism and mischaracterization of his views and motivations. “Any time you become a disturbance, there’s going to be some resistance, some fallout. I anticipated something like this would happen. I showed myself as a strong, confident player, but deep down I was constantly questioning myself. But if you can’t stand up for something you say you believe in, you are a coward. I decided I was going to live and die with a free conscience. The truth means more to me than a paycheck.” He exhorted the audience to “go for broke” in standing up for their beliefs and leaving behind a proud legacy.

Co-sponsors of the event included the Institute of Sacred Music; the Departments of Film and Media Studies, Religious Studies, and American Studies; the Council on Middle East Studies; Public Humanities at Yale; the Ethnicity, Race & Migration Program; the Muslim Students Association; the Afro-American Cultural Center; and the Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration. An ESPN crew covered the event for a future “Outside the Linesprogram.

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