A Touchdown for Freedom by Professor A.L.I.
Colin Kaepernick is trending, and the die-hard ‘9er’s fan in me is excited hoping the news is good, that he’s healthy for the next preseason game. I’ve supported the team through our great successes and triumphs throughout the ‘80’s and 90’s, only to watch us claw back to relevancy, and then have that fall away. I’m a Colin Kaepernick fan as a result, and my hope was this year would be different than what the pundits had predicted, if only to piss off all the Oakland Raider fans who have been needling me throughout the summer. However, as I tuned it to the trending timeline, it became clear that Kaepernick was trending for reasons even more relevant to me as a person, and furthermore as a person of color in America and so I watched closely like a fan rooting for the home team during the Super Bowl.
I watched Colin sit for the anthem now, just as I had watched Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf sit as a young Muslim kid who’d saved up money to have a custom poster of Abdul-Rauf made, which showed him supplicating as opposed to standing for the national anthem. This was a picture that I hung proudly on my dorm room wall and even when his career shifted because of his religious-political stand it stayed there to remind me of the sacrifices a person needs to make for their convictions.
When Mahmoud came to speak at UC Berkeley’s Muslim Unity Conference, it was shortly after the height of the controversy and the lecture halls were rightfully packed with eager American Muslims who had felt the same way, disenfranchised by the American promise because of one’s Blackness or Islam; so the flag didn’t hold the same weight for us because in our minds its symbology was besieged by police brutality, an injustice system, and policies that privileged some over others. Mahmoud stood up for us by sitting down and he sacrificed his career to do so.
People have forgotten how good Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was. He was the prototype for Steph Curry, and he made an impact on the game in an era where the rules did not favor that style of play. He never missed a free throw and had one of the silkiest shots in the game. People forget that when he was still known as Chris Jackson at LSU, a teammate of Shaquille O’Neal, that it was Chris that people came to see. I still remember his 50 point explosions and battles with Larry Johnson. Most people don’t remember any of that, in fact he has become obsolete, made so by standing up for his beliefs. He might have been on my poster, but he was made a poster-child for un-sportsman like qualities.
From not standing up for the anthem to fasting in Ramadan, he was painted to be selfish. Sam Perkins, a Jehovah’s Witness never stood for the anthem but he was never outed by the media nor was he made an example in the same way. Hakeem Olajuwon fasted in Ramadan, but when he did it no one made it an issue. When Mahmoud covered up the logos on his shoes, instead of being praised, he was ostracized. And the scrutiny took its toll and deprived many a basketball fan of watching a truly uniquely gifted talent from evolving into one of the game’s greats.
This was twenty years ago, and the injustice done to Mahmoud for standing up for his faith still bothers me, because it remains an injustice that is so incongruent with what the flag stands for that those who stole his right not to stand actually disrespected the principles of the flag more than he ever could by not standing. Freedom is a concept that must be lived through experience, not pseudo-honored through conformity and denigrated by the complacency of those who don’t truly know what that concept means. The flag waves for freedom. The freedom to stand or sit. The freedom of faith and the freedom to express it. What happened to Mahmoud was senseless then and remains so now, and to call for the same to happen to Colin Kaepernick only showcases how much we have regressed in two decades.
In twenty years the issues of injustice remain and I’d argue along with those who would say that things have gotten worse. Thanks to social media and devices that capture everyone’s single story, we have become hyper connected to the narratives of oppression that exist in this country. Police brutality is no longer a myth that privileged groups can choose to ignore. It is real and the movement to create accountability and shift policing is one that has been born of the work done by all those who have brought attention to this issue.
Colin Kaepernick scored a touched down for Black Lives, for the injustices done towards people of color and he made the nation pause and cheer and jeer for him, just as if this was in the Super Bowl. His growing friendship with our mutual friend and my brother and colleague Dr. Ameer “Left” Hassan of @LeftSentThis, a true educator who uses social media to teach as effectively as he does in the classroom, is a testament to his growth as a human being and his victory in the eyes of the people.
I write this as an American who understands deeply that a fundamental quality of being an American is to recognize the freedoms an individual has, and this includes the freedom to burn a flag, let alone remain sitting when the national anthem is played. Those that doubt the patriotism of Colin Kaepernick or Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, should consider Jackie Robinson’s stand for the same right, and check their love of figures like Muhammad Ali at the door. They should question what they are patriotic of, a flag that stands for nothing, or a flag that stands for freedom. If it is the latter, they too should sit with Colin, but if it’s the former, I guess they should vote for Trump, because after all, his promise of an America devoid of any difference, any choice or freedom of faith, is precisely the flag they seem to be saluting after all.