Before Kaepernick: Remembering Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf’s Peaceful Protest of the National Anthem and the Defilement of a Mosque
Because it created such controversy on and off the field, nearly all of us remember when Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback, refused to stand for the national anthem during the 2016–17 National Football League season. Kaepernick stated that his actions were a protest of America’s prejudicial treatment of African Americans and other minorities. His actions made him the poster child of peaceful protest via refusing to stand during the national anthem, but, few people remember the National Basketball Association player who preceded Kaepernick’s peaceful protests. That NBA player’s name was Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf.
Abdul-Rauf’s birth name was Chris Jackson. An African American, Jackson played college basketball for Louisiana State University and then signed on with the Denver Nuggets in 1990. Jackson converted to Islam and changed his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf within three years of joining the Nuggets.
Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the national anthem during the 1995–96 NBA season because he believed “the Koran forbid him to participate in nationalistic rituals, and that the American flag was ‘a symbol of oppression, of tyranny,’” according to The Denver Post. Very few noticed Abdul-Rauf’s actions at the beginning of that season, but by March of 1996 reporters had begun to draw attention to them and to question his motivations.
On March 12, 1996, the NBA suspended Abdul-Rauf until he agreed to stand for the anthem. He only missed one game, but at the end of the season the Nuggets traded him to the Sacramento Kings, where he continued to play but less frequently. After his contract expired in 1998, not a single team would draft Abdul-Rauf.
The response from outside the NBA was far harsher. Abdul-Rauf’s actions were deemed “tantamount to treason” by one Colorado American Legion president. When he returned to the basketball court on March 15, 1996, after his two-day suspension, “spectators held a large flag a few feet from him while he held his hands open in prayer” during the national anthem, wrote the Post. He later reported that he’d received death threats after initially refusing to stand for the anthem. And in March of 1996, there was another, more public incident of backlash against Abdul-Rauf in Aurora, Colorado.
Shortly after Abdul-Rauf’s suspension ended, five men took part in a defilement of the Colorado Muslim Society’s flagship mosque in Aurora. Three of the men—Joseph Teehan, Roger Beaty, and Dean Myers—were local radio DJs with the Denver-based KBPI radio station, while the other two were William Jones, a sound engineer, and Steven Illich, a local fan of the station. On March 19, 1996, Teehan, Jones, and Illich “barged into the Mosque to play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ on a trumpet and a bugle,” wrote the Post, while Beaty and Myers broadcast the incident from the KBPI station in downtown Denver. Teehan also “wore a mock turban and a Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf T-shirt.”
Administrators for the Colorado Muslim Society initially wanted Teehan, Beaty, and Myers fired from the radio station; however, the incident concluded with all three men being temporarily suspended without pay. They were also forced to publicly apologize in front of the Colorado Muslim Society’s flagship mosque and over their radio broadcasts.
The connection between the mosque defilement at the hands of five men and Abdul-Rauf’s peaceful protest is just one example of how the actions of one American minority—in Colorado or anywhere else—can impact the lives of others. While people may disagree over the protests of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf or Colin Kaepernick, it is fair to say that the communities both men represent should not be discriminated against.