Kareem Abdul-Jabbar writes that Colin Kaepernick has carried on Muhammad Ali’s legacy of selfless activism.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar says the backlash Colin Kaepernick gets today for taking a knee is not all that different from the people in college who asked why he, a soon-to-be-rich professional basketball player, bothered with civil rights protests.
“That’s the argument of somebody that wants to change the subject,” Abdul-Jabbar told local media outlets Thursday. “That’s the argument of people that wanted to say Colin Kaepernick was disrespecting the flag. Colin Kaepernick has a lot of respect for our country and the flag and our armed forces. Colin Kaepernick was upset that black Americans get killed by police officers needlessly too often.”
Fifty years after he historically declined an invitation to the U.S. Olympics basketball team in political protest, he says he still sees the same pushback. But the veteran activist and basketball legend is not discouraged.
He says the demonstrations he sees across the nation today give him cause for optimism. In hopes of helping foster this activism, he’ll visit the University of Iowa this weekend.
Abdul-Jabbar will delve into his own experience and other athletes’ experiences using their platform to advocate for civil rights and religious tolerance at Hancher Auditorium at 3 p.m. Sunday for an event, titled “From Kareem to Kaepernick: A History of Political Activism in Sports.” He says if students take away anything, he hopes it’s ideas for how start a dialogue.
Abdul-Jabbar got his own start in activism on UCLA’s campus. He describes his college years as an intense time in the civil rights movement, with mounting pressure to ensure that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were successfully implemented.
“If you had any emotional attachment to any of the issues, you were pulled into it,” he said.
Since then, Abdul-Jabbar’s careers — both in basketball and activism — have made him an american icon. He played for the Milwaukee Bucks from 1969 to 1975, during that time converting to Islam and changing his name from Lew Alcindor to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. By the time he retired from the Los Angeles Lakers in 1989, Abdul-Jabbar was considered one of the best professional athletes in U.S. history, having earned six NBA championships, six Most Valuable Player awards, 19 All-Star selections.
In retirement, he’s written 11 books, taking inspiration from a variety of subjects, including his basketball career and a battalion of black soldiers in WWII. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of honor during President Barack Obama’s time in office and served as a U.S. global cultural ambassador during the administration.
He says his basketball career helped him as an activist.
“If you are a good basketball player, there’s four other guys on the court that you have to play with and communicate with … I think being a basketball player really helped me absorb the lessons of working with other people and giving them the chance to do their thing while I do my thing,” he said.
He says its become clear through decades of advocacy that being able to open that line of communication is essential to activism.
“Dialogue is always what bears the best fruit,” he said. “Just getting to the point where there can be a dialogue and people can speak truthfully about what the problems are what the issues.”
More often than not, he says, this means having the patience to “give the other side a chance to get it.”
“You have to be patient enough to listen to their point of view,” he said. “Because if you can’t listen to the other side’s point of view, you won’t be able to make … that bridge to where they can see whatever you have to say is valid — and you might find out a lot about your point of view that might not be valid.”
He sees younger generations being pulled into social issues today as well, particularly when it comes to younger athletes following Kaepernick’s example.
He’s particularly encouraged by the demonstrations in Charlottesville after a white nationalist at the Unite the Right rally in August of 2017 drove a car through a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer.
He said he’s alarmed to see the white supremacist group protesting in the first place, but the counter-protests were uplifting.
“There was a response that Nazis do not represent America; Nazis are not what my country is all about,” he said. “That came from a broad spectrum on America; that gave me a lot of encouragement, because that, to me, is evidence of the progress that we made. It also made me alarmed that we have that type of work to do, but we have identified the problem and we have to address it.”
Aimee Breaux is the education reporter for the Press-Citizen. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @aimee_breaux.