On The Shoulders Of Giants : Code Switch When Colin Kaepernick stopped standing for the national anthem at NFL games it sparked a nationwide conversation about patriotism and police brutality. Black athletes using their platform to protest injustice has long been a tradition in American history. In this episode we tap in our friends at Throughline to explore three stories of protest that are rarely told but essential to understanding the current debate: the heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson, the sprinter Wilma Rudolph, and the basketball player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf.

On The Shoulders Of Giants

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/698102193/698591292" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is CODE SWITCH. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.


And I'm Gene Demby. We're in the same room for once.

MERAJI: Yes, we are. You're right across from me. We're at NPR West.

DEMBY: In beautiful LA.

MERAJI: It's gorgeous.


MERAJI: (Laughter) Sorry.

DEMBY: (Laughter) All right, y'all, so if you're like us, you were probably a little thrown by the news around Colin Kaepernick from just a couple weeks ago.


MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Colin Kaepernick's legal battle with the NFL is over. The former 49ers quarterback has signed a confidential agreement with the NFL. The agreement...

MERAJI: All right, some basic info in case you don't know it, but I know you do but just in case, Colin Kaepernick is the former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. He almost brought that team to a Super Bowl win in 2013.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Kaepernick to Vernon Davis right there to the Ravens' 31 yard line.

MERAJI: Beyonce was the halftime show.


BEYONCE: (Singing) Baby, baby, it's you. Come on, baby, it's you.

MERAJI: The only time I ever watched the Super Bowl.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: Anyway, three years later, that same Colin Kaepernick started protesting police violence against black people, first by sitting during the national anthem...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Reporters saw that Colin Kaepernick's rear was planted on the bench during the national anthem.

MERAJI: ...Then kneeling, and pretty soon his teammates and players on other teams joined in.


COLIN KAEPERNICK: I mean, ultimately, it's to bring awareness and make people, you know, realize what's really going on in this country.

MERAJI: Those protests were polarizing. Critics like President Trump said they were unpatriotic and disrespectful to the military. And when his contract was up, Colin Kaepernick found himself out of a job, and no team has been willing to sign him since.

DEMBY: Very curious, very curious. So Kaepernick was like, look; I'm going to sue the NFL's owner, and he's - his argument was basically that they had colluded to blackball him from getting a job because of those protests. That lawsuit was dragging on for a while, but then out of nowhere, unexpectedly, the league announced that it had settled with Colin Kaepernick and his former teammate, Eric Reid, who was another player who was part of that lawsuit.

We don't know the terms of that settlement. We don't know how much was given out to Kaepernick and Reid because they had to sign a nondisclosure agreement. But the standard for proving collusion is real, real high. And there are lots of smart sports people out there who think that the NFL would have only settled if Colin Kaepernick had a really strong case proving that the NFL owners had organized to blackball him. And that settlement was likely for a lot of money.

MERAJI: Now, Kaepernick has been mostly quiet through all this, not granting interviews to the news media. Trust us, we have asked.

DEMBY: We have.

MERAJI: But...


KAEPERNICK: Believe in something...

MERAJI: ...You probably caught him in that giant Nike ad.


KAEPERNICK: ...Even if it means sacrificing everything.

MERAJI: At the same time Kaepernick was dominating the headlines, women in the WNBA like Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus were speaking out about police shootings of black people. Their team, the Minnesota Lynx, also wore T-shirts that had the names of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling on the back and on the front read change starts with us, justice and accountability.


DEMBY: Black athletes have been using their celebrity to call out injustice like this for basically as long as there have been athletes in America. And on this week's episode in these final days of Black History Month just under the wire, we're turning the mic over to a CODE SWITCH alum - Rund Abdelfatah and her co-host, Ramtin Arablouei - to tell us about three athlete activists whose stories deserve to be revisited.

MERAJI: They've got a new podcast called Throughline where they go back in time to help us better understand today.


HARRY EDWARDS: I would say that the purpose for us understanding our own history is that we must be able to teach our children to dream with their eyes open, and that means understanding the historic figures who brought us thus far. And that includes, and perhaps especially includes, our athletes because they've played such a great role.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Trayvon Martin.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: LeBron James tweeted a team photo of the Miami Heat wearing hoodies to pay tribute to Martin.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Now to that protest by Colin Kaepernick - 49ers quarterback knelt instead of standing during the national anthem at last night's game.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: The rare occasion when sports and politics collide, and...

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And say, get that son of a [expletive] off the field right now. Out - he's fired. He's fired.



Part I - Jack.


TRUMP: Thank you very much. This was set up quite a long time ago, and while this is...

ABDELFATAH: All right. This is a clip from an event in the Oval Office. And here's the scene. Donald Trump is sitting at his desk, surrounded by a bunch of professional boxers. To Trump's left stands a guy who played a boxer in the movies and whose name I'm sure you'll recognize.


TRUMP: This was very important to Sylvester Stallone, my friend for a long time. Sly and...

ABDELFATAH: To his right is champion boxer Deontay Wilder.


TRUMP: Here we have the current heavyweight champion of the world, Deontay Wilder. He's 40-0.

ABDELFATAH: And the reason they're all gathered there because after months of lobbying by Sylvester Stallone and others in the boxing community, President Trump decided to do something that other presidents before him refused to do.


TRUMP: Today, as president, I've issued an executive grant of clemency, a full pardon, posthumously, to John Arthur "Jack" Johnson. He was known as Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world, a truly great fighter.


And why did he have to issue a pardon? Well, we'll get to that. But first, we have to explain who Jack Johnson was.

ABDELFATAH: And we're going to start by diving into the world that Jack Johnson was born into - Texas in the late 1800s.

EDWARDS: Jack Johnson was the son of an ex-slave.

ARABLOUEI: He was born in 1878, right in the heart of Southern segregation.

ABDELFATAH: And in Texas, like a lot of the country, conditions for black people were awful. The Civil War was still a fresh memory, and all the gains made by black people right after the war had been turned back by Jim Crow laws.


ABDELFATAH: But it was the city he was born in, Galveston, that laid the groundwork for his later success.

DAVE ZIRIN: But what people don't understand is that Jack Johnson is from Galveston, Texas. And Galveston, at the time - and to a lesser degree still is - is a port community.

ABDELFATAH: This is Dave Zirin. He's an award-winning sports journalist and the host of his own podcast, "Edge Of Sports."

ZIRIN: So Jack Johnson, as a young man hanging out on the docks in Galveston, he met people from all over the world - from the Middle East. He's meeting people from sub-Saharan Africa. He's meeting people from all over Europe. And - you know, and he was an - almost a curio to them, this entertaining person because oftentimes, the sailors would be involved with the kids because they would ask the kids to fight each other. Johnson was - even as a boy, was the best at doing that.

ABDELFATAH: At a time when international travel was very difficult for most people, Jack Johnson had the world come to him. And it basically gave him a global perspective. And that perspective made him kind of fearless. He realized there was more to the world than what he saw in Texas.

ARABLOUEI: And so when he was 16 and working as a janitor at a local school in Galveston, he met German-born boxing trainer named Herman Bernau. He immediately started to train, and by 1898, he began fighting in local prize fights.

ABDELFATAH: He was amazing. And 10 years later, he became the colored heavyweight champion of the world.

ARABLOUEI: But that wasn't enough for Johnson. He wanted to beat the best white fighters in the world and become the heavyweight champion of the world, full stop. But...

EDWARDS: He could not get a fight against any white contender and most certainly not any white champion.

ARABLOUEI: Because there was kind of a gentlemen's agreement that...

EDWARDS: That no black fighter would be allowed to fight for a championship, particularly in the heavyweight division.

ABDELFATAH: But Jack Johnson had an idea for how to get the fight he wanted.

EDWARDS: And Jack Johnson actually showed up at fights between white boxers for championships and so forth and taunted them, embarrassed them in terms of why they would not allow him to have a shot at the title.

ARABLOUEI: This is Dr. Harry Edwards. He's a professor at Cal Berkeley, and he's not just an academic. He's a key figure in the history of black sports protest. We're going to hear more from him in a second.

ABDELFATAH: So what Johnson was doing, it was trolling on a level never seen before. And the boxer Johnson taunted the most was the heavyweight champion of the world, the Canadian, Tommy Burns.


ABDELFATAH: He would actually travel around the world to all of Burns' fights, buy a ringside seat and talk trash to Burns the entire fight. And in the early 20th century, it took a lot of, let's say, moxie for a black man to do this. You know, it was like putting a target on your own back.

ARABLOUEI: But it worked. Finally, in 1908, Burns grants Johnson a chance at the title.

ABDELFATAH: The fight had to be held in Australia because no venue in the U.S. or Canada would host a fight between a black and white fighter.


ABDELFATAH: So everything was set - Johnson versus Burns. But it really wasn't about boxing. This was about whether a black fighter could actually beat a white fighter, something that would call into question the idea that a black person could never outmaneuver or outthink a white fighter in the ring.

ARABLOUEI: Here's an actual quote from The New York Times in its coverage of the fight. Quote, "if the black man wins, thousands and thousands of his ignorant brothers will misinterpret his victory as justifying claims to much more than mere physical equality with their white neighbors."


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: It's December 26, 1908, and world's heavyweight champion Tommy Burns defends his title in Sydney, Australia, against the scourge of the heavyweight ranks, Jack Johnson. And Tommy knows...

ARABLOUEI: Nearly 20,000 people pack Sydney Stadium to watch the match. It was a legit international event.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: In round one, Tommy Burns, to the left of your screen, moves out and boxes cautiously.

ARABLOUEI: Oh, and there's actual footage from the fight available online. The narration was added later.

ABDELFATAH: Right away, you notice that Johnson is much taller than Burns.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Johnson clinches with Tommy and smiles to ringsiders. Burns looks almost like a little boy compared to the 212-pound challenger.

ABDELFATAH: At the end of round one, things are not looking good for Burns.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Johnson rushes in and scores with a punishing left at the end of round one.

ARABLOUEI: And it kind of keeps going on like this.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Johnson calmly looks down at Tommy, talks to the champion, taunting him. He wants Burns, as well as everyone, to know that this is no fight - this is a picnic.

ARABLOUEI: And by round 14, the outcome was clear.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Here in round 14, Johnson rushes in, lands an uppercut, three left hooks - a tremendous barrage of punches - lefts and rights, which have Burns helpless. At this very moment, in the early seconds of round 14, the police shut off the motion picture cameras and stepped into the ring, awarding the heavyweight championship of the world to Jack Johnson.

ABDELFATAH: The police actually jumped in and stopped the fight. Like everyone else, they couldn't stand to watch Burns get beaten to badly.


ABDELFATAH: The response to Johnson's win came quickly from the media.

ARABLOUEI: Newspapers back in the U.S. ran headlines expressing outrage. They called for a, quote, "great white hope" to come along and dethrone Johnson as champion.

AMIRA ROSE DAVIS: My fear is a headline where you have a little girl pointing up and basically saying, you know, are you the great white hope?

ABDELFATAH: This is Amira Rose Davis. She's a professor at Penn State.

DAVIS: There's this idea that the whole community is invested on this. And you can see this also reflected in newspaper headlines, this idea that if Johnson wins, the negroes around the country are going to riot. They're going to revolt. They're going to get the idea that they can fight back. They're going to get the idea that they're not inferior.

JULES BOYKOFF: His fights were nothing short of racial spectacles in the sense that people openly mapped greater racial meaning onto each bout that he had with a white fighter.

ARABLOUEI: This is Jules Boykoff. He's a professor at Pacific University and has written a bunch of books on sports history.

ABDELFATAH: So Johnson, always a showman, embraced the challenge. He was full of bravado. He talked trash and backed it up.

ARABLOUEI: And so he beat one great white hope after another, culminating with his defeat of the great former champion Jim Jeffries in 1910. And the night after that fight, black people celebrated in the streets of a dozen major U.S. cities, and white people responded with violence. Race riots ensued, and hundreds of people died.

ABDELFATAH: And the thing is, Jack Johnson's philosophy was to pretend that race didn't exist. He said in his memoir, quote, "I found no better way of avoiding race prejudice than to act with people of other races as if race did not exist."

ARABLOUEI: But still, in some ways, the fears of that New York Times article were realized. Black people saw their champion in Johnson, even if he didn't want to be a champion for the people.

ABDELFATAH: But it was something else that made him public enemy No. 1.

BOYKOFF: Here was someone who was going to live his life to the fullest, exactly how he wanted. Forget being deferential, I mean, let alone submissive. He's sort of like, racial mores be damned. I have a life to live here. And if that meant sleeping across the color line, so be it.

DAVIS: Right. So he drove cars. He wore fur. And most of all, he dated white women. And this was absolutely flagrant.

EDWARDS: This was a man who would go into a hotel in St. Louis and ask for a room. And when the clerk told him, we don't serve your kind, he responded, it's not for me, it's for my lady, and she's not my kind. She's your kind, at which time, of course, they escorted him not only out of the hotel but out of town.

ABDELFATAH: Johnson was, like, the prototype of the modern star athlete, right? Like, he had tons of money. He was brash. He was tough, smooth-talking - all that.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah. And he wasn't trying to be some kind of role model, right? He just loved dating white women, and he loved driving nice cars. And he didn't really want to make any political statement.

EDWARDS: He was an iconoclastic individual who wanted it all. Along the way, he set some standards of rebellion.

ARABLOUEI: So you can imagine that Jack Johnson's rebellion would not be tolerated for long.

BOYKOFF: Yeah, that's right. I mean, the government went to extraordinary lengths to stop Jack Johnson using the Mann Act as a way of slowing him down, of challenging him.

ABDELFATAH: So the Mann Act was this law that made it illegal to, quote, "transfer women across state lines for devious purposes." And in the early 20th century, interracial relationships were considered devious.

ARABLOUEI: Johnson, as a prizefighter, naturally was traveling state to state for fights. And he did this with his wife, who was white. So eventually a warrant was put out for his arrest.

BOYKOFF: Unfortunately, this is something we've seen quite a bit in U.S. history. When somebody makes a splash, the government tends to go out of their way.

ABDELFATAH: Go out of their way to stop them. And that's what they did with Jack Johnson.

ARABLOUEI: He was brought to trial...

DAVIS: Convicted by an all-white jury in 1913...

ABDELFATAH: And sentenced to one year in jail.

DAVIS: But essentially jumped bail, fled the country, went to Canada, pretended to be a member of a black baseball team and then lived in exile all over in Europe and South America - about seven years in exile.

ARABLOUEI: And that was it. Those seven years wrecked Johnson's career. He would eventually lose his title and never regain his dominance in the sport. Oh, and he did eventually return to the U.S. and serve his sentence.

ABDELFATAH: And there wouldn't be another black heavyweight champion for 27 years.


EDWARDS: Jack Johnson was the father of the first wave of athlete activists. It's a line that you can draw a direct line of ascent from Jack Johnson right up through Colin Kaepernick.

ABDELFATAH: But this is not generally how Johnson is remembered.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah. Like, when Trump pardoned him - which, by the way, was for that Mann Act conviction...


TRUMP: Johnson served 10 months in federal prison for what many view as a racially motivated injustice. He was treated very rough, very tough.

ARABLOUEI: He definitely wasn't thinking about him as the guy who launched the tradition that eventually led to the Kaepernick protest.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, definitely not. I mean, what Edwards said makes a lot of sense, right? Even though he wasn't an activist, per se, and actually was probably opposed to being framed in that way, he did inspire people. And he dealt a really big blow to the idea of white supremacy at that time.

ARABLOUEI: In the early 20th century, that was enough to be revolutionary.

ABDELFATAH: And it really did lay the foundation of black athlete activism, which would only continue with the rise of another superstar athlete almost 50 years later - Wilma Rudolph.


ARABLOUEI: Part II - Wilma.

ABDELFATAH: All right. The next person I'm really excited to highlight is someone I'm sure you've heard of, Ramtin. And as a fellow runner, I have to say, I really love her.

ARABLOUEI: You're a runner?

ABDELFATAH: What the hell, Ramtin? How many times do I have to tell you?

ARABLOUEI: (Laughter) I'm asking.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah. I made states in high school, thank you very much.

ARABLOUEI: Come on. Everybody says that.

ABDELFATAH: No, no. I did. My mom has the newspaper clipping to prove it, all right?

ARABLOUEI: Oh, my God.

ABDELFATAH: (Laughter) Anyway, the runner I'm talking about is someone who definitely made it way beyond states. And again, you've probably heard of her. She gets, like, a paragraph in most history textbooks. I'm talking about Wilma Rudolph.

ARABLOUEI: Oh, yeah, yeah, she was the Olympic champ.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah. She was a superstar athlete in the 1960s. But the part of her story that's most interesting is what would come after her Olympic fame, the part that's always left out, mostly because she was a woman. And I want to make the case that she deserves recognition as one of the black athlete activists on that line of ascension that Harry Edwards talked about.


EDWARDS: To remember Wilma Rudolph as a sprinter is like saying, yeah, Jackie Robinson played second base. You know, there's so much more to the story than that.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: In Italy, they called her The Black Gazelle. In 1960, Wilma Rudolph won three gold medals at the Rome Olympics.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Ladies and gentlemen, I have with me here the outstanding star of our Olympic track and field team so far, Wilma Rudolph, the girl that has won two gold medals and stands a chance of winning a third one. Wilma, how fast did you run that hundred meters? It was a new world record time, wasn't it?

WILMA RUDOLPH: Yes, 11 flat.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Well, has anyone ever run 11 seconds - a girl?


ARABLOUEI: Yo, why does he keep calling her a girl?

ABDELFATAH: I don't know. It was the 1960s, and she was a woman.


ABDELFATAH: So yeah. I actually want to rewind to the beginning, way before this moment and before she was ever a contender on the Olympic stage.


ABDELFATAH: She was born in 1940 near Clarksville, Tenn.

DAVIS: She was born to a large family. She was the 20th of 22 kids.


ABDELFATAH: Yeah, 22 kids. But being one of that many siblings wasn't the only challenge she faced.

DAVIS: She was also born with polio. She could not walk as a child.


RUDOLPH: I think the most difficult moment growing up was being teased by my peers and not being accepted to play and do all the things that one wants to do growing up.

ABDELFATAH: Which, you can imagine, was really difficult. I mean, she was picked on, and she could barely take part in any sports even though she loved sports. And on top of all that, she lived in Tennessee in the 1940s.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah, I can't even imagine what that was like.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah. And basically at 9 years old, they finally took the brace off of her leg. And she had to learn how to walk all over again.

DAVIS: Which is really significant if you realize that she wins her first Olympic medal at 16.

ARABLOUEI: Damn, just seven years later?


ABDELFATAH: Yeah, seven years after recovering from polio, she was already competing and winning in the Olympics.

ARABLOUEI: This sounds like Forrest Gump.

ABDELFATAH: (Laughter) Yeah, it does. But this is better because it's true. I mean, she won a bronze medal at the Olympics, and she was 16 years old. And already she had become a star in the track and field world. And after that, she went on this tour of the U.S. that took her all over the place.

DAVIS: She describes leaving on the jet plane, you know, this amazing moment where she's thinking, how far will I go? Where am I going to end up? And she's looking down. It's the first time she's been on an airplane. They stop and refuel in Hawaii, and she has this really formative experience at seeing palm trees. They go to Guam, and she has this experience about being around dark-skinned people who don't speak English.

ABDELFATAH: And this experience was when she started to develop an international perspective, kind of like Jack Johnson did on the docks in Galveston.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah, yeah.

ABDELFATAH: She started to realize what the world was and what her place in it was. And that started her down a path towards political consciousness that would change her life forever.


ABDELFATAH: So fast-forward to a few years later. It's the 1960 Olympics, and Wilma is dominating. She wins three gold medals, sets records in multiple events. And to put it simply, this is the moment she becomes an actual, full-fledged superstar.


EDWARDS: She was tall. She was beautiful.

DAVIS: It also helps that she's light, lighter-skinned than some of her teammates. She has an infectious grin.

EDWARDS: And to have the personality that she had - extremely wholesome and personable - this added an aura to her that was extremely appealing to everybody who came in contact with her.

DAVIS: She's, like, a ready-made media darling. And in fact, that's what she became all over the world.

EDWARDS: She was bigger than simply being an athlete.

DAVIS: So she comes back to the United States, and she meets with John F. Kennedy.

EDWARDS: She was the queen of athletes. She was one of the first female athletes, black or otherwise, who was simply known by one name.







UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Will the real Wilma Rudolph please stand up?


ABDELFATAH: All right. So now Wilma is a superstar. But none of this is happening in a vacuum, right? This is the era of the Cold War and the civil rights movement. And all sports, especially Olympic sports, had some Cold War elements sort of ingrained in them, using athletes as pawns to project strength, sort of like a sports arms race. Except the big difference was Americans didn't have big government sports programs like the Soviets. Yet...

DAVIS: We're still beating you with our, you know, black star from the rural, poor South, who couldn't even walk. So this is part of what elevates her even more in the mainstream press.

ABDELFATAH: So in 1963, Wilma Rudolph is appointed as a goodwill ambassador for the United States. And she's sent around the world basically marketing the U.S. to countries that were under threat of influence from the Soviet Union, which is incredibly ironic because meanwhile, she's a black woman who faces serious discrimination at home in the U.S.

ARABLOUEI: So she had to be a spokesperson for the U.S. even when she didn't have full citizenship rights.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, exactly. And it wasn't until she went on this tour with the U.S. State Department that she started to develop the desire to do something about it, especially at one of the tour's first stops, Senegal, a country that had recently gained independence from France.

DAVIS: So she feels empowered by being among black people. She calls them, repeatedly, I'm among my people. She ends up doing her own kind of tour through formerly French West Africa.

ABDELFATAH: And this experience, seeing the aftermath of colonialism and political resistance movements outside of the U.S., this moves her to action. Just weeks after she comes back from the trip, she gets involved. She joins a protest to integrate restaurants in her hometown. She was now an active participant in the civil rights movement.

EDWARDS: So Wilma grew. And it was something that was really never fully documented or recognized by the mainstream American sports media because that's not the Wilma that they wanted to project, that they wanted to exist.


ARABLOUEI: Wow. This took a turn.


ARABLOUEI: This is definitely not the Wilma Rudolph I grew up reading about in those books.

ABDELFATAH: I mean, why would you hear about it? The media kind of didn't cover this change in her. They just ignored it. Like, I looked for news stories about this time, and there was practically nothing, especially in mainstream media. And so her career kind of fizzled out at that point. She didn't get the kind of endorsements or media presence that other athletes were getting. And it was a really big change because, remember, she was superstar Beyonce status just a few years earlier. And now she couldn't find work or make a living.

ARABLOUEI: I'm sure some of that had to do with the fact that she was a woman.

ABDELFATAH: Actually, that's also a really interesting part of the story because her voice wasn't even amplified like Muhammad Ali, for example, who made a very public turn from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali around the same time, right? He got political and managed to remain in the spotlight. But it seems like the image of Wilma Rudolph as an activist was just too hard for the American media to swallow.

EDWARDS: When you come up against the media and are unwilling to play the game, then you are essentially cast aside, turned essentially into a non-person because they no longer have any use for you.


ABDELFATAH: And it's really sad because towards the end of her life, Wilma expressed so much disappointment about all the things that happened to her after the 1960 Olympics. She wrote a memoir, and...

DAVIS: The back third of her memoir is reflections and feelings of dissatisfaction. And I think the most damning thing that she says is she reflects on the fact that when - remember I said she was on that jet plane in '56, and as a 16-year-old said, where am I going to end up? Where am I going to be going, soaring to new heights? And by the end of her memoir - this is going to be in the late '70s - she's in a place where she's back in Clarksville, Tenn. And she says to herself, I used to think, where was I going to end up? And never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd be right back here in Clarksville, Tenn.


ARABLOUEI: And that's it? That's just how her story ends?

ABDELFATAH: Pretty much. But what I think is really important to remember is that Wilma Rudolph should absolutely be counted as one of the activist athletes who set the path for those who came after, even if she wasn't as outspoken about it as, say, Muhammad Ali and even if her protests were largely written out of history because I think women athletes are often forgotten in this narrative, especially when you consider the environment for women athletes in the 1960s. You know, if you remember, everyone wanted to say that she was beautiful and demure and this star athlete. They just kind of ignored her deeper, more challenging thoughts and actions. And so I really think it's unfair that Wilma Rudolph is forgotten as one of the athlete activists of her era.


EDWARDS: And she is one of them and a sorely needed model and exemplary personality of growth, of commitment, of honesty, of personal integrity, particularly for African-American women in this era. I can't think of anyone who would be as critically important as the example set by Wilma Rudolph.


ABDELFATAH: Part III - Mahmoud.

ARABLOUEI: So we just talked about two athletes who were pretty famous.


ARABLOUEI: But now I want to tell you about an athlete who was never that famous and not really known outside of the basketball world. But I want to make the argument that his story is the closest thing we've seen to Colin Kaepernick's story and that without him we wouldn't have the Colin Kaepernick story we see today.

ABDELFATAH: Wow. OK. I'm excited for this. Tell me more.

ARABLOUEI: OK. So his name is Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Works on Morris, double-team. Now Mahmoud again, left corner for three. It's good.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: Seems like a double-team.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Mahmoud, getting rid of Stockton. Yes, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: He is really light...

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Mahmoud for three. This one's good.

ABDELFATAH: I feel like I've heard his name before. I'm not exactly sure where.

ARABLOUEI: Right. I mean, you might have heard of him, for sure. He was an NBA All-Star. He played most of his career for the Denver Nuggets in the '90s mostly.


ARABLOUEI: And he was so much fun to watch. I think the player I'd compare him now to is probably Stephen Curry.


ARABLOUEI: Yeah. No, he was that good.

ABDELFATAH: So he was really good.

ARABLOUEI: He was really - he could do it all on the court. And he was really quick. He could shoot. He could put points up in bunches. He was amazing. And one of the other reasons I really liked him was that I could really relate to him, right? He was one of the few Muslim NBA players.

ABDELFATAH: I figured.



ARABLOUEI: And what's really interesting is until his third year in the NBA, he went by the name Chris Jackson. This was right before he converted to Islam. So his conversion, it was really interesting, too, because it was also like a process of political awakening.

ABDELFATAH: I think I see where this is going.

ARABLOUEI: And so he started to rethink the way he viewed his own country and his place in the world, right? So as he would stand for the national anthem before games, his focus went to the flag.


ARABLOUEI: And here he is at a public meeting in an Islamic center in Michigan talking about what happened as he would look at the flag.


MAHMOUD ABDUL-RAUF: So one day, you know, I was looking at this symbol. And I'm reading about America throughout the world and its involvement in a lot of places - raiding resources, killing folks.

ARABLOUEI: So what he did is he started to find ways to avoid standing for the anthem. He'd either stretch, or he'd stay in the locker room for some extra treatment he didn't need. And he did this for about five months.


ABDUL-RAUF: Because I didn't want to be so obvious because I'm still trying to figure this thing out. What do I do - stand, sit, stand, sit?

ARABLOUEI: Eventually, he just decides to sit during the anthem. He'd just do it, like, right out in the open.

ABDELFATAH: Wow. I mean, were people outraged?

ARABLOUEI: Well, what's interesting is no. At first, no one really noticed. And it took a while but eventually one journalist did.



ABDUL-RAUF: So one day, the general manager comes - the assistant general manager comes in. Mahmoud, he says, there's a guy who's been noticing for some time that you haven't been standing. He would like to talk to you. Would you like to talk to him? I ain't see nothing of it, so I said, sure, I'll talk to him.

ARABLOUEI: After that interview, word spread fast. By the next day's practice, the press started swarming him. So can you even imagine the scene here, right? All these reporters are swarming him.

ABDELFATAH: Ah, I'm getting nervous for him, Ramtin.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah. He's sitting on a chair all by himself, and the questions are just flying at him.


ABDUL-RAUF: They're asking me questions. So what do you think about the American flag? Boom, boom, boom, boom. And I give them my answer.

It's also a symbol of oppression, of tyranny. So it depends on how you look at it. You can't stand for - you can't be for God and be for oppression.

ARABLOUEI: This comment made this story blow up. It became a national news story almost immediately.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: Rauf, a Muslim, says, quote, "my beliefs are more important than anything. If I have to give up basketball, I will," as he sees the U.S. flag as a symbol of oppression and tyranny.


ABDUL-RAUF: They don't deal with the whole comment, which was a balanced comment. They highlight tyranny and oppression. That's the only thing they say.


ABDELFATAH: So then what happens? Like, how do people respond to these news reports?

ARABLOUEI: You know what? Actually, before I tell you, we got to take a short detour - historical detour.

ABDELFATAH: Aw, come on.


ABDELFATAH: I just want to hear the end.

ARABLOUEI: I know, and I will deliver it. But I promise this will be worth it because to really understand the way people reacted to Rauf not standing for the national anthem or his comments, we really have to understand the era he was in, the 1980s and '90s. So this period marks the beginning of professional sports becoming the massive, lucrative industries we see today. And this happened during a period of rapid globalization.

ZIRIN: And the zeitgeist was make what money you can and with the poor being thrown at the wayside.

ABDELFATAH: Again, Dave Zirin.

BOYKOFF: Part of that zeitgeist of capitalism was that sports were becoming bigger and bigger business. And so more money was at stake with these games.

ARABLOUEI: That's Jules Boykoff.

ZIRIN: So you had this tremendous wealth come into the sports itself. And when you have all this wealth come in...

BOYKOFF: Comes two pressures. One is that the owners don't want anybody saying anything on the field or on the court that is going to disrupt the flow of money into their coffers.

ZIRIN: You have it coincide with a historic dip in these broader social movements - whether you're talking about the Black Power movement, the women's liberation movement.

ARABLOUEI: I mean, this was a time where NBA stars like Michael Jordan or Charles Barkley refused to take political positions. And the reason was pretty simple.

EDWARDS: I'm sorry. Republicans buy gym shoes, too - when an athlete could say, I'm not a role model, and actually not really suffer any severe consequences for it.


CHARLES BARKLEY: I am not a role model.


BARKLEY: I am paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court. Parents should be role models.

ABDELFATAH: Oh, Charles Barkley.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah, that commercial has not aged well (laughter).

ABDELFATAH: (Laughter) No. I didn't realize that there was such a lull during this period in sports activism.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah, it was pretty much the opposite of the 1960s in a lot of ways. But there's also, like, a crazy irony here, which is that all the work that was done by athlete activists in the 1960s kind of opened up the path for athletes like Michael Jordan, for example, to make all the money that he made. But then when they made all that money and it became a high-stakes kind of money game, then athletes were kind of afraid to be outspoken.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, it's kind of a weird cycle.

ARABLOUEI: And now we can go back to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf's story...

ABDELFATAH: Yes, OK, I want to know what happens.

ARABLOUEI: ...Because it's in this context that as a Muslim player in the prime of his career, he stopped standing for the national anthem.

ZIRIN: If you go back, as I have, and looked at a lot of the commentary about Rauf, so many people put his stance on his religion. And they said, well, he used to be Chris Jackson. He converted to Islam. That's why he's doing it. You know, the message that's being said subtly is Islam is bad. Islam is the reason why this is happening.

They got Hakeem Olajuwon, who was the most famous Muslim athlete at that time in the NBA by far, to say that, you know, a good Muslim does not protest the country in which he lives and all of that.

ABDELFATAH: I mean, that kind of makes sense to me, that they would focus on his religion because of the time he was in. Although, this is pre-9/11.

ARABLOUEI: But it was post-first World Trade Center bombing.

ABDELFATAH: Right, right.

ARABLOUEI: So tensions were high, and condemnations came flying in. So just a few weeks after that interview...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: The National Basketball Association on Tuesday indefinitely suspended Denver Nuggets star Mahmoud Rauf for refusing to follow a rule that players, coaches and trainers must stand respectfully during the playing of the national anthem before games.

ARABLOUEI: Eventually, the NBA and Rauf came to a compromise where he would stand and pray during the national anthem, but it was too late. The damage was done. Rauf was toxic.


ABDUL-RAUF: They started to slowly just erase me from the books. So my minutes began to decline - got less minutes. First time in my career I got DNP - did not play - because of the coach's decision. I got a lot of those. And so after that, after those years were up, I just - you know, I'm done. You know, I'm done. I'm tired of the politics of it. I'm going home.


ARABLOUEI: So I think that Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf's story is kind of a perfect way to end because it's, in a lot of ways, analogous to Colin Kaepernick's story, right?

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, totally.

ARABLOUEI: The difference is that Kaepernick has had support from other athletes, from Nike, and Rauf was kind of left out to dry. He career was essentially ruined. But I think the lesson is the same, which is that often when black athletes speak out or do anything provocative, they're basically gambling their entire careers, their future, their livelihood.

ABDELFATAH: Right. And that part of it hasn't changed all that much.

ARABLOUEI: Right, right.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah. I mean, thinking about this whole episode, though, it is pretty amazing that all of these people came before Colin Kaepernick and sort of set the stage for what we're seeing today. And I'm just remembering something that Harry Edwards - by the way, I love...

ARABLOUEI: Oh, he's amazing.

ABDELFATAH: ...Said - right? But he said that Kaepernick is standing on the shoulders of these past athletes. And you can really see it in each of these eras of athlete activism or lack thereof, right?

ARABLOUEI: Right, right.

ABDELFATAH: And it really is an arc and over 100 years of black athletes fighting through sports for more equality, more rights, more representation.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah. And I think the only way to understand what's happening today and the stories we see is to really appreciate that arc.



ARABLOUEI: That's it for this week's show. I'm Ramtin Arabouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: This episode was produced by Rund and I.

ABDELFATAH: Our team is Jamie York.

ARABLOUEI: Jordana Hochman.

ABDELFATAH: Lawrence Wu.

ARABLOUEI: And Michelle Lanz.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks also to N'Jeri Eaton.

ARABLOUEI: Steve Nelson.

ABDELFATAH: Tom Goldman. Our music was composed by Drop Electric.

ARABLOUEI: If you like something you heard on this show or have an idea, please write us at throughline@npr.org. Or hit us up on Twitter - @nprthroughline.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.


Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.