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Chris Jackson, Colin Kaepernick & the Burden of Voice

Twenty years ago, young NBA guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf took a stand against racial inequality in America by sitting out the national anthem, and was eventually blackballed from the league with little fanfare. Today, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick faces similar adversity with much more media scrutiny.

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Editor’s Note: A few weeks ago, a Blazer's Edge reader asked about sports teams and protests in our Mailbag feature. At the time, our managing editor Dave Deckard said he felt inadequate to address the issue. Today, our newest feature writer, James Holas, introduces himself to Blazer's Edge with a thoughtful, engaging essay on the subject. We thank him for providing a viewpoint that the rest of us couldn't and we hope you'll join us in welcoming him to the site.

— Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf on his decision to sit during the National Anthem, 1996

We idolize Steph Curry’s shooting just as we once were dazzled by the poetry in motion of Allen Iverson; the NBA fan zeitgeist holds a special affinity for the little guy, and we all love an underdog story. When Chris Jackson entered the league in 1990, he was an oddity. The 6-foot-1 spark plug burned down defenses at Louisiana State University for two seasons, and his legend grew. But the NBA was a man’s league — there was no way this slip of a man would survive the gauntlet of elbows and biceps thrown around by the pros every night.

Then Jackson gave all comers 19 points a game in his third season, shutting that nonsense talk up. He was a prime-time scorer, size be damned.

But while his game grew, so did his perspective. He went from Chris Jackson to Mahmoud Adul-Rauf. When he looked around at America in the wake of the Los Angeles “Rodney King” Riots, at the wealth gap between minorities and white Americans and at the mounting evidence of deeply ingrained racism festering in The Land of The Free, even as a young and rich NBA player, Abdul-Rauf felt he had to do something to express his discontent.

So he sat.

His decision to not stand for the national anthem before games went largely unnoticed for months, but once the media caught wind of it, Abdul-Rauf’s life and career were never the same again. He went from averaging almost 19 points and seven assists a game in the 1995-96 season to appearing in just 31 games off the bench for the lowly 27-win Kings two years later.

— Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in a 2010 HoopsHype interview

I wish there were some sort of cathartic, happy ending to the Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf story. In a perfect world, the NBA would have somehow opened up its collective arms to him, and stood with him while addressing the racial tensions in modern America. The reality is much less satisfying. The dead-eye shooter was essentially blackballed around the league, and would end his playing career in overseas backwaters. He endured death threats, hate mail, and “KKK” symbology spray painted on his house in Mississippi; that house was eventually burned to the ground by arsons.

Mahmoud Abdul Abdul-Rauf became the eye of a storm, simply for sitting down to stand up for his beliefs.

In 2016, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick looked around at America in the wake of a rash of killings of unarmed people of color by the police — some even caught on camera — and the Flint Water Crisis, and even as a wealthy young NFL player, felt he had to do something to shine a light on these injustices.

So he kneeled.

Much like Mahmoud before him, Kaepernick was living a life that few could only dream about; the life of a professional athlete in one of the “Big Three” American sports is about as lavish as you can imagine. But even with millions of dollars at their disposal, these two athletes couldn’t see the world around them and keep a clear conscience.

— Colin Kaepernick, on why he chooses to take a knee in protest

America has a complex, unpleasant history of racial issues, and there’s a ton left to unpack — mentally and emotionally -- among us, the U.S. population. While we’ve obviously come a long, long way since the Emancipation Proclamation, athletes like Abdul-Rauf and Kaepernick feel the burden of voice. They make it a point to speak out for those minorities who aren’t in the spotlight in NBA arenas or taking the field in NFL stadiums.

This type of stand — or seat, or knee -- should be commendable, exactly what we should want from our athletes; as public figures, what’s better than speaking up for the voiceless, while trying to shine a light on social inequality?

Instead, the reactions to Kaepernick from many corners have been the mirror image of the reactions to Abdul-Rauf, right down to the howls of “traitor” and “ungrateful” drowning out almost all real attempts to look at the reasons African Americans might think twice about paying homage to a country built on the backs of slaves who looked like them, on land acquired through the genocide of the indigenous Native Americans.

But the critical avalanche poured in. Former NFL player Rodney harrison called it useless and a distraction. People like Sarah Palin spoke out on “behalf of vets” she knew, telling Kaepernick to “get the hell out” of America. FoxSports resident blowhard and troll Jason Whitlock called Kaepernick’s protest a “fad,” going so far as to publish his hilariously ignored attempt at scolding the 49er quarterback. In response to Kaepernick championing racial equality in America, his Twitter feed was inundated with tweets from Americans calling him “n*gger.”

And yet....

The rise of social media and technology has changed how we consume and digest our sports, and Colin Kaepernick’s protest is a perfect example. Whereas Abdul-Rauf was reduced to snippets and soundbites at the end of Sportscenter and near the end of the 6 o’clock news — and a scathing editorial or two — Kaepernick has gained a growing national audience.

Googling “Kaepernick explains” returns 796,000 hits immediately; video and transcripts of him calmly pointing out how cosmetology students are required to get more training than police officers can be found at a moment’s notice. For all the talk of “disrespecting veterans,” the hashtag #VeteransForKaepernick went viral as social media was flooded with military members, past and present, supporting Kaepernick’s stance.

While talking heads tried to label the quarterback’s gesture as “useless,” at least 18 other players joined him in protest, either by kneeling or raising a fist in solidarity, and soccer player Megan Rapinoe took a knee to show support for Kaepernick and his cause.

More importantly, the conversation hasn’t faded out, and Kaepernick’s concerns haven’t been completely shouted down by those who refuse to even acknowledge that the “land of the free” can offer entirely different challenges, depending on the color of your skin.

While Abdul-Rauf was unceremoniously swept aside by the NBA, Kaepernick’s stance is gaining steam; his jersey sales skyrocketed to the top. While Abdul-Rauf was chastised publicly by NBA superstar Hakeem Olajuwon and Hall Of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, there’s been plenty of visible, high-profile support for Kaepernick’s impassioned plea for equality. The NBA’s 2016 Coach of the year Steve Kerr backs him, and the Republican son of an NYPD lieutenant penned a NY Daily News editorial letter supporting the quarterback’s decision to protest.

Over 20 years separate Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and Colin Kaepernick’s public actions, but the parallels between the protests of the diminutive NBA scorer and the flashy NFL quarterback are impossible to ignore. We know how Abdul-Rauf’s career turned out after he sat for the national anthem: He was outcast from the NBA fraternity, and the league just wanted the furor to go away. But don’t think that Abdul-Rauf regrets carrying the burden of voice.

In an interview with The Undefeated’s Jesse Washington, he talks about how the burden of voice never crushed him, but seemingly set him free:

How will Kaepernick’s stance end? What will come of his protest, and the discourse that’s grown from it? Only the future knows. Let’s hope that some meaningful, lasting change can come from Colin Kaepernick kneeling for what he believes in. Let’s hope at least some eyes, ears, and minds are opened to points of views and realities they may not have considered before the 49er took a knee.

And let’s hope that Colin Kaepernick’s burden of voice isn’t too much for a young black man to bear.

— James Holas | Twitter