Among professional basketball’s most memorable “big men,” the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Shaquille O’Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ranks as by far the most graceful, featuring a deadly-accurate hook shot that was poetry in motion and indefensible.
During his amazing athletic career, he led the UCLA Bruins to three consecutive NCAA championships (1967-69), each time being named the national college player of the year, and he went on to play 20 years in the professional National Basketball Association, scoring over 38,000 points, named the league’s Most Valuable Player six times and leading his team to five NBA championships before retiring in 1989.
Now, Abdul-Jabbar has carried his talent and grace under fire far beyond his storied athletic career. He has become an articulate Muslim American spokesman whose role could not be more important in these times as an advocate for reason, sanity and justice in the face of roiling racial and religious tensions sparked by recent cases of video-taped discriminatory and deadly police violence against African-Americans and a presidential candidate, Donald Trump, who is inciting the lowest prejudices in the population against Muslims and almost all other non-white male segments of the U.S. population.
(Thanks to a lazy, cowardly and immoral major media, Trump has by and large been able to mask his ties to white supremacist and other racist groups by preemptively charging his opponent, Hillary Clinton, with “bigotry.” This groundless bit of name-calling has served to permit the media to assert a non-existent “moral equivalency.” Trump has a lengthy, documented dossier of ties to hate groups, cited in detail by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Clinton has nothing but an incendiary charge by her opponent. But the media blithely calls this a moral equivalency. Not just Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, but leading media talking heads like Wolf Blitzer, Chuck Todd and Andrea Mitchell have failed their profession and the American people in this way. And CNN’s insistence on maintaining the disreputable former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski as a paid commentator is like forcing these people to choke on their own verbal excrement.)
But this week the Washington Post provided op-ed space to Abdul-Jabbar to weigh in on the controversy swirling around National Football League player Colin Kaepernick’s decision to remain seated during the playing of the U.S. national anthem at the start of a game last weekend. Abdul-Jabbar quoted Kaepernick, “There are a lot of things that are going on that are unjust (that) people aren’t being held accountable for. And that’s something that needs to change.”
Abdul-Jabbar wrote, “Patriotism isn’t just getting teary-eyed on the Fourth of July or choked up at war memorials. It’s supporting what the Fourth of July celebrates and what those war memorials commemorate: The Constitution’s insistence that all people should have the same rights and opportunities and that it is the obligation of the government to make that happen. When the government fails in those obligations, it is the responsibility of patriots to speak up and remind it of its duty.”
He added, “What makes an act truly patriotic and not just lip service is when it involves personal risk or sacrifice,” when “inspiring others is more important than personal cost,” and noted the significant risks of personal and professional loss that Kaepernick has been willing to take.
The knee-jerk reaction against Kaepernick, and the insidious role of the media to counterpose it to interviews of grieving war widows, shows much has gone backwards since the civil rights activism of the 1960s, when among other things the late Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War, saying at that the time, “I am not going ten thousand miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over.”
With his passing this summer, Ali was lionized by everyone. But it was his willingness to stand up for justice and peace that was at his core. Did everyone forget his poignant protests, or his conversion, like Abdul-Jabbar, to Islam, in his earlier days?
Moreover, my hope is that Kaepernick, Abdul-Jabbar and many others extend their protests to expose the dangers that every NFL player faces from brain damage and the NFL’s insidious campaign to cover it up.