Ex-Nuggets coach recalls NBA's anthem controversy with iffy hindsight

Reactions to Colin Kaepernick have brought Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf back into the public conversation about sports and activism. (Brian Barr/ Getty Images).
Reactions to Colin Kaepernick have brought Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf back into the public conversation about sports and activism. (Brian Barr/ Getty Images).

The NFL and sports world in general are currently in the midst of a controversy surrounding San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has decided not to stand during the national anthem in protest of a country that “oppresses black people and people of color.” Kaepernick’s political stand has proven divisive, receiving criticism from various corners of the sport and exposing many of the retrograde racial views and practices that the protest is intended to reveal. It’s a complicated issue that is unlikely to go away until Kaepernick chooses (or is made) to stop sitting.

Historically minded sports fans may remember that the NBA dealt with a similar protest in February 1996, when Denver Nuggets Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (previously known as Chris Jackson) opted not to stand during “The Star-Spangled Banner” in because the country’s history of oppression clashed with his beliefs as a Muslim. Abdul-Rauf’s personal and political stand received a great deal of attention in what was then not an all-encompassing media climate, and the NBA eventually reached a compromise with the player in which he would stand but be allowed to bow his head and close his eyes. Abdul-Rauf typically spent that time in prayer, and the rest of his career unfolded without major public incident, although he thinks his NBA career ended prematurely due to the fallout from the anthem controversy.

Kaepernick’s situation has brought the circumstances of Abdul-Rauf’s case back into the public eye. Bernie Bickerstaff, a basketball lifer and the Nuggets’ head coach and general manager at the time, spoke with SiriusXM NBA Radio on Monday about his experience with the Abdul-Rauf controversy. If Bickerstaff has learned to identify with Adbdul-Rauf’s personal struggle, he does not show it here (audio and partial transcript via PBT):

“It caused a lot of distractions, you know. At that point, the number of media members was not quite as resounding as it is today. But it was still a distraction. I think we were going into Chicago immediately after that happened. And when we got off the plane in Chicago on the bus going into the hotel, his players, his teammates, had to actually form a line so that he could get off and walk down that line to be shielded from the media. And they were all there, the cameras, the questions, the microphone. The distractions were enormous. […]

“Number one, completely blind. Had no idea that was about to transpire. […]

“We had him come in, to sit down and have a conversation, and the conversation was about, the one thing that we have in this life is freedom of choice, and with that choice comes consequences. And my conversation with him was simply that one of the guys I probably admired most at that time was Muhammad Ali, because not only did he make a decision not to step forward but it was the part of it, the things that he gave up, and our message basically to [Abdul-Rauf] was ‘Hey, that’s the guy I admire. If you really feel that way then you go home, and you give us a call and let us know you’re willing to walk away from that contract, and then I can really, really, respect that…

“When he got home, we got a call and he said ‘I think I want to be on the trip.’ And that’s our understanding, if you’re on the trip, then you’re standing.”

Bickerstaff talks about Abdul-Rauf for roughly four minutes and focuses almost entirely on his responsibilities as the Nuggets’ head coach and leader at the time. As he sees it, the anthem controversy distracted from the Nuggets’ attempt to build on the momentum of their memorable upset of the top-seeded Seattle Supersonics in the 1995 postseason. (They finished 10th in the West, out of the playoffs.) It’s a reasonable take on the situation, particularly given that NBA coaches and front office members have never had the greatest job security. Bickerstaff’s immediate concerns were winning games, and anything that distracted from that purpose in any way must have seemed like an unnecessary imposition. It was Bickerstaff’s right as a private citizen and black man to leave the political stands to the activists and try to get his players to focus on their jobs.

Unfortunately, Bickerstaff does not stop there. His conversation with Abdul-Rauf resembles a threat on his job at its most extreme and, at best, a questionable reading of what it means to take a public stand. In comparing Abdul-Rauf to Muhammad Ali, Bickerstaff makes the argument that someone who truly believed in his cause would sacrifice his personal well-being for its own sake. But this an extremely high bar to set for any person with a desire to do good in the world, akin to the misguided point that anyone who disagrees with aspects of America should gladly leave the country no matter the personal loss it would entail. The fact that Abdul-Rauf depended on the NBA and the business climate of the United States for money does not erase centuries of race-based oppression and wars of questionable value. It’s possible to live in as society without accepting its worst aspects.

Asking anyone to give up his paycheck for his beliefs was a form of moral extortion, and the fact that many have decided to do just that in the past does not mean it’s a good practice in general. Venerating martyrs should not require us to create a world in which we make as many as possible. We praise Muhammad Ali because he had the courage to stand up against injustice, not because he sacrificed his earning power. The personal loss was the unfortunate byproduct of his action.

Sadly, hindsight does not appear to have given Bickerstaff a view of the situation beyond his immediate concerns at the time. He vaguely respected Abdul-Rauf’s right to protest without doing anything to manifest that respect, asserting the importance of the nation’s ideals without considering how and why they would be made manifest. The same argument has been made by many of Kaepernick’s critics and ostensible allies, including New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Chris Ault, Kaepernick’s college head coach at Nevada, and the backlash has already been swift against the former. The unpopular form of Kaepernick’s protest is the point — doing it in a less noticeable way that would not ruffle feathers would defang it. Abdul-Rauf’s beliefs stopped being an issue after the NBA’s compromise for a reason.

The more mixed response to the Kaepernick controversy suggests that we have made some progress in understanding why an athlete could choose to protest while he simultaneously earns a hefty salary. Yet the familiarity of Bickerstaff’s comments in this debate suggests that there’s still plenty of work to be done. The problem isn’t just that the same arguments are being made now. It’s that situations like Abdul Rauf’s can be remembered without much reflection on how poorly they were handled.

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Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at efreeman_ysports@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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