When the person formerly known as Chris Jackson decided to change his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, he was labelled by some of society as a troublemaker and rabble-rouser. Those labels did not dissuade him from continuing to stand for what he believes, by not standing, actually. When Rauf decided to not stand for the National Anthem based upon his beliefs, he was not greeted by even the strident-but-somewhat-evenly-sided chat that surrounded Colin Kaepernick’s similar call 20 years later. The hatred and vitriol that hit Kaepernick was sizable, but nothing compared to the near-absolute verdict delivered to Abdul-Rauf a quarter century ago. In that era, there was little sympathy for Mahmoud’s opinion in the afterglow of the 80’s.
Rauf was immediately booed and dismissed by an unfortunate number in his home crowd – let alone road games – every time he touched the ball. Though he’d been a huge part of the Nuggets making it to the playoffs the two seasons prior, he was suddenly a worrisome part of the Denver puzzle by becoming an unfortunate pariah with a data-driven opinion he chose to stand by. By season’s end, he would find himself traded away to the Sacramento Kings, and his career would never be the same. In his last three seasons in Denver, Abdul-Rauf led the league twice in free throw percentage, including a .956 mark that is the third-best in league history. He led the team in points-per-game during a Nuggets renaissance that included Dikembe Mutombo, LaPhonso Ellis, and coach Dan Issel. Rauf’s “distractions” were partially (and incorrectly) blamed for the dumpster fire that Bernie Bickerstaff led them to be.
To look at both situations and realize that the often-ugly conversation that ensued about Kaepernick’s choice was massive progress may be a difficult pill to swallow, but it was. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf primarily stood alone. Kap suffered just as large a career loss, but is a hero to a huge part of the world. Most of Kaepernick’s press lists him as a “civil rights activist”. Abdul-Rauf is a “former basketball player”. How much broader opinion has shifted matters, and it came because people keep pressing us having the conversations.
After a couple lost seasons in Sacto, Abdul-Rauf left the league. A failed renaissance attempt in the ’00-’01 season with Vancouver was followed by his home in Mississippi being burned to the ground. Abdul-Rauf left the league and his home state, mocked for his beliefs, his disabilities, and even his difficulties standing in the face of such things. At no point did he step back from stating and standing up for the things he believed in. Even today, he says he would do it all again. Like him or hate him, Love or despise his beliefs, Mahmoud was one thing, for sure.
He was unbelievably brave.
In an era that opinion was so dead-set against him that most people applauded a local radio stunt that blasted the same patriotic tune in a mosque, Abdul-Rauf stood his ground. He stood bravely like athletes before him and after him, a part of making sure there was a chance to have a conversation. A conversation about what is right, and what is wrong. While he’s one of the largest stories of this sort that was front-and-center-facing for us here in Colorado, there’s an overabundance of these stories to choose between in the world of sport, always.
Kaepernick was a hell of a quarterback who created a firestorm that still forced him out of the NFL, but DeShaun Watson will only be out of football until Week 10. Because of him and others, there is rightfully a conversation happening about that, led by others in the league who are encouraging the dialogue.
Ime Udoka is a hell of a coach, or he wouldn’t have shaped the Celtics into one of the most fearsome teams in the league. But his recent indiscretion the was leaked from inside his organization calls his judgement highly into question, and will cost him at least a year away from the team, if he doesn’t end up resigning. There is rightfully a conversation happening about that, led by voices from all corners of the NBA.
Robert Sarver ended up selling the Phoenix Suns after recent revelations of his own massive failings, but when the underwhelming penalty that he faced from his league was immediately questioned by some of the NBA’s leading voices. Thank goodness there is rightfully a conversation about that ongoing.
The therapists that stood up and called upon us to penalize Watson for his unacceptable behavior? Brave. The yet-unknown voices who blew the whistle on Udoka’s idiocies? Brave. The calls from popular stars such as Chris Paul and LeBron James to have “done more” about Sarver? Brave. They speak up for their beliefs, popular or not, and they encourage that dialogue to continue. The people who deeply disagree about all of the above, and are still willing to enter into dialogue with those they may not care for?
We enter a moment in history in which we are reflecting on all that has become before us. As we shine that spotlight on our past, we find that there are moments we are not quite so proud of. That many of us are coming to the conclusion that we as a country are not exactly what we were originally thought or were taught. That simple fact is exactly what Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was protesting, irony of ironies. His ability to say those beliefs freely is exactly the freedom we should all still be fighting for. If we cannot speak, there is nothing to hear. If we cannot listen, it won’t matter that we were speaking in the first place.
Those voices in sports with a platform to do so are often shining that spotlight on things we’ve far too long ignored. Those voices need to be encouraging us all to be coming back to the table to hear things from the other side we may not want to. Can we listen to those we disagree with long enough to see if there’s a better solution on the far side for us all?
It’s admittedly daunting that we seem to be looking at all of these problems and issues simultaneously, to be sure. It’s daunting to talk about it all in a world so polarized as to risk one’s life, health, or wealth over an unpopular opinion. It often seems easier to crawl into our safe spot and let that angry world go by.
But as we continue to diverge further and further apart on so many polarizing topics, we need to find a way to be kind enough to one another… simply good enough to one another to reach back across that divide and continue having that conversation. When no one is left talking or listening, true tragedies occur. As right as you may feel you are, we are all in this together. Standing up and speaking out is incredibly brave. Reaching out to continue finding solutions… That’s the rest of what brave can be.
Have a brave WKND, DNVR Nation.
“You always know the mark of a coward. A coward hides behind freedom. A brave person stands in front of freedom and defends it for others.”