For the first time ever, the "stick to sports" era is starting to feel bygone.
Colin Kaepernick's national-anthem protest against police brutality and the failures of the judicial system has had a surprisingly galvanizing effect. Athletes from across the sports world have publicly supported him, casting aside their own fears of public scorn to confront one of the most polarizing issues of the age.
Kaepernick has followed a long line of brave athletes who raised questions about social issues. Perhaps surprisingly, he may come out of the situation unscathed.
As of yet, Kaepernick hasn't lost any endorsements and hasn't been formally reprimanded by his team, the San Francisco 49ers, or the NFL, though league commissioner Roger Goodell stated his disagreement with Kaepernick's gestures when the Associated Press asked him about them.
His jersey, not among the top 10 best-sellers on his team before his protests began in late August, skyrocketed to No. 1 in the league, per Darren Heitner of Forbes, during the first week of the season.
Pro athletes of previous generations who made outward displays of defiance weren't accommodated like this. Many were met with definitive repercussions. Former Denver Nuggets star Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf knows this all too well.
Abdul-Rauf—who changed his name from Chris Jackson when he converted to Islam in the early '90s—spent nine years in the league as an extra-quick combo guard with a deft shooting touch, twice leading the NBA in free-throw shooting percentage.
During the 1994 playoffs, he was a starter on the eighth-seeded Nuggets team that upset the top-seeded Seattle SuperSonics. Before his NBA career, he was one of the best pure scorers college basketball had ever seen and still holds the record for per-game scoring by a freshman (30.2 PPG).
But that's not what you know him for, is it? You know Abdul-Rauf because, in 1996, he refused to stand for the national anthem, citing the flag's symbolic meaning to large portions of the world.
"I couldn't stand for a flag that represented tyranny and oppression," Abdul-Rauf told Bleacher Report during the Q&A interview that follows.
Abdul-Rauf believes his protest triggered his premature exit from the league at age 31. Now living in the Greater Atlanta area, Abdul-Rauf trains athletes and writes books. He is, as you might imagine, 100 percent behind Kaepernick.
He spoke with B/R about Kaepernick's protest, how social activism in professional sports has changed since he played in the NBA, and his legacy, which will never fit neatly into the "athlete" compartment of our minds.
Bleacher Report: For those who don't remember, can you explain why you protested against the national anthem?
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf: Couple of reasons, actually. I couldn't stand for a flag that represented tyranny and oppression. Not just from a domestic perspective but from a global one. It's supposed to represent equality and justice for all, and I believe the flag is a symbol that's supposed to represent the character of the people. When that character is not in line with what I believe in, then I'm opposed to that symbol. I couldn't see myself standing and still can't.
B/R: Do you believe you were blackballed because of your stance?
AR: When I really look at how it went down, yeah, because I was in my prime, and after the incident, my minutes went down. But you can't just say, 'we're getting rid of him for that'—they had to create an environment where [it was] 'let's change his minutes, and let's mess up his rhythm.' A lot of things began to happen, so definitely that's why my career was cut short.
B/R: The support you received wasn't as widespread as what Kaepernick is getting. Is that fair to say?
AR: There was some support [for me]. Shaq [O'Neal] ended up saying something. Dikembe Mutombo, some of my teammates and Dale Ellis on one of the nights stood up in the opposite direction from where everyone had turned. The people who really knew me and had similar feelings voiced their support. But it's not like it is nowadays, with the advent of social media.
A lot of people when I was coming up—you can't call it support [because] it was more like anonymous support—supported me but, for their own reasons, just didn't have the strength to come out, and I understand it. Not that I agree, but people think of themselves and [their] families and how that can affect it. This is why Kaepernick says it's bigger than football. This is why we love those from the past—the Muhammad Alis, the Paul Robesons. Those who stood up for principles.
B/R: The media narrative regarding your protest was pretty harsh. A lot of people don't want players involved in their political lives, but players don't seem willing to adhere to that thinking anymore. Do you agree?
AR: I was reading something about the FBI during the COINTELPRO days, and it wanted to promote the self-absorbed type of athletes and celebrities over those who were politically aware and socially conscious. Anytime an individual like that would surface, the [FBI] wanted to make an example out of him—that if you do these types of things, you'll lose your job, your credibility, your fame.
It highlighted those who are self-absorbed, those who are into their materialism. It wanted to control the minds of athletes. 'Who is he to be talking about social, political and economic issues?' Why can't we?
'As long as he toes a line, it's OK. But if he ventures off, no—we have to crush him.'
Why can't we have a voice? What's the difference between an athlete having millions or Donald Trump? Every time a politician talks, they talk about what's wrong with America. Well, he's an athlete who is also saying something is wrong with America. Why is it that when he talks, people say, 'How can he talk about oppression and make millions?' Well, Trump is talking about it. Hillary Clinton is talking about it. And they have more money than most athletes.
B/R: This era of athlete is markedly different from yours in regard to being socially involved. How does that make you feel?
AR: I'm excited. We know what's going on. We feel it right now; it's happening. Social media has something to do with it. Now it's becoming so visible, and it's creating courage and anger. In the '80s and '90s, on the buses and the planes with athletes, we had these conversations. Now, at minimum, guys are like, 'I have to say something about it,' and they're putting their careers on the line. People want to be on the right side of history.
B/R: Your legacy as an activist has overshadowed your career as a ballplayer. Does that bother you?
AR: I'm mixed on this, but I feel like George Washington Carver said: 'No one has the right to come into this world and go out of it without leaving distinct and legitimate reasons for having passed through it.' So if I'm going to be remembered for something, if I have a choice, I'd rather be known for standing up for my principles than shooting a jump shot.