On The Shoulders Of Giants : Throughline When Colin Kaepernick stopped standing for the national anthem at NFL games it sparked a nationwide conversation about patriotism and police brutality. And in the last few weeks that conversation was rekindled when the NFL announced a deal with Jay-Z that some thought moved attention away from Kaepernick's continued absence from the league. The discussion about the utility of athletes taking a stand is nothing new — black athletes using their platform to protest injustice has long been a tradition in American history.

On The Shoulders Of Giants

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RUND ABDELFATAH, HOST:

Hey, it's Rund here. So you may have heard there was a recent development in the Colin Kaepernick story. Jay-Z, who was an outspoken supporter of Kaepernick's protest, made a deal with the NFL to curate their entertainment programming and social justice initiatives. He's saying that this is a move to cause change in the league from within, but critics have claimed he threw Kaepernick and his career under the bus for financial gain. So as the NFL season kicks off, possibly bringing more controversy, we wanted to revisit one of our first episodes, where we explored the stories of three American athletes from history who protested and suffered the consequences. Here it is.

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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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

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.

ABDELFATAH: You're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR...

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, HOST:

...Where we go back in time...

ABDELFATAH: ...To understand the present.

ARABLOUEI: Hey, I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: And today we're going to talk about the history of black protests in sports.

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ARABLOUEI: Rund, we're both sports fans.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, I dabble.

(LAUGHTER)

ARABLOUEI: A little bit. And we've been talking a lot lately about how so many black athletes are using their platforms to speak out about things like police brutality...

ABDELFATAH: ...Or racial profiling. And a lot of this coverage tends to start the backstory in the 1960s, with Muhammad Ali or the raised fists at the 1968 Olympics.

ARABLOUEI: So we decided to look for other stories, the ones we don't always hear about.

ABDELFATAH: We found examples of athletes who challenged the status quo of their time.

ARABLOUEI: And it's their rebellion that really surprised us, even in cases where they may not have considered themselves activists.

ABDELFATAH: And learning more about their stories, a much more complex tale of activism emerged.

ARABLOUEI: So we're going to tell three of those stories, starting with a champion boxer from the early 20th century...

ABDELFATAH: ...Then move to an Olympic track star from the 1960s...

ARABLOUEI: ...And end with an NBA player from the 1990s.

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ABDELFATAH: Part I - Jack.

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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. President 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.

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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.

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

ABDELFATAH: And the reason they were all gathered there is, thanks to lobbying by Sylvester Stallone and people in the boxing community, President Trump decided to do something that other presidents before him refused to do.

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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.

ARABLOUEI: 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: So let's start by going back to the world that Jack Johnson was born into - Texas in the late 1800s.

ARABLOUEI: Johnson was born the son of an ex-slave in 1878.

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

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

DAVE ZIRIN: 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 a radio show called "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 for money.

ARABLOUEI: And if that sounds like a dogfight, that's basically what it was.

ZIRIN: Johnson was - even as a boy, was the best at doing that.

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

ARABLOUEI: When he was a teenager, he got a job as a janitor at a gym, and that's where he met German-born boxing trainer Herman Bernau. He started to train, and within a few years, he began fighting in prize fights.

ABDELFATAH: He was amazing. And in 1903, he became the colored heavyweight champion of the world.

ARABLOUEI: That wasn't enough for Johnson. He wanted to beat the best white fighters in the world and become the heavyweight champion, full stop. But there was kind of a gentlemen's agreement...

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 wrote one of the most important books on this topic, "The Revolt Of The Black Athlete."

ABDELFATAH: So the boxer Johnson taunted the most was the heavyweight champion of the world, the Canadian, Tommy Burns.

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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. It was next-level trolling. 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. Burns finally agreed to fight Johnson for a whopping $30,000 - which was a lot of money at that time - put up by a promoter in Australia.

ABDELFATAH: The fight was to be held in Sydney. And here's an ominous quote from a local newspaper about the match - this battle may, in future, be looked back upon as the first great battle of an inevitable race war. There is more in this fight to be considered than the mere title of pugilistic champion of the world.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: 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 packed Sydney Stadium to watch the match. It was a serious international event.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: In round one, Tommy Burns, to the left of your screen, moves out and boxes cautiously.

ARABLOUEI: And we're watching actual footage from a documentary about the fight that was made in 1908. The narration was added years later.

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

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: 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.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: 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.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: 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: After 14 rounds, Burns was in terrible shape. And the police actually jumped in and stopped the fight.

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

ARABLOUEI: People in the U.S. responded with outrage, including the famous writer, Jack London.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, that guy, the one who wrote "Call Of The Wild."

ARABLOUEI: He captured that outrage by writing that a, quote, "great white hope" should come along and remove the golden smile off of Jack Johnson's face, that the white man must be rescued.

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 and co-host of a feminist sports podcast called "Burn It All Down."

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 the author of several 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.

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ARABLOUEI: This is a quote from The New York Times coverage of the fight - 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.

The night after the fight, black people celebrated in the streets of many major U.S. cities. And white people responded with violence. Race riots ensued, and countless people died. But the thing is, Johnson didn't want to be a racial symbol. He wasn't looking to carry the hopes of black people or be a symbol of anything. He just wanted to be a champion.

ABDELFATAH: In fact, his philosophy was to ignore race and racism. He said in his memoir, quote, "I found no better way of avoiding racial prejudice than to act with people of other races as if prejudice did not exist."

ARABLOUEI: But prejudice did exist. And it was making 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. Like, he had tons of money. He was brash. He was tough, smooth-talking - all that.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah. He just loved dating white women and driving nice cars. He didn't really want to make any political statement with it.

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

ARABLOUEI: But 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.

ABDELFATAH: A law called the Mann Act made it illegal to transfer women across state lines for immoral purposes. And in the early 20th century, interracial relationships were considered immoral.

ARABLOUEI: Johnson, as a prizefighter, naturally was traveling state to state for fights. And he did this with his girlfriend, who later became his wife. She 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.

ARABLOUEI: He was eventually 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: There wouldn't be another black heavyweight champion for 22 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

EDWARDS: Jack Johnson was the father of the first wave of athlete activists. 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...

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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 opposed to being framed in that way, he did inspire people. And he dealt a blow to the idea of white supremacy at that time.

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

ABDELFATAH: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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: The hell, Ramtin?

ARABLOUEI: (Laughter) I'm asking.

ABDELFATAH: How many times do I have to tell you? Yeah. I made states in high school, thank you very much.

ARABLOUEI: Everybody says that.

ABDELFATAH: No, no. I did. My mom has a 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: She was an Olympic champion, right?

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.

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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.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: In Italy, they called her The Black Gazelle. In 1960, Wilma Rudolph won three gold medals at the Rome Olympics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: 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 #6: Well, has anyone ever run 11 seconds - a girl?

RUDOLPH: No.

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

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

ARABLOUEI: Wow. Wow.

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.

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

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

ARABLOUEI: What?

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, 22 kids. But being one of that many siblings wasn't the only challenge she faced. At 4 years old, she got polio. So she had to wear a leg brace just to walk.

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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: That must have been really tough.

ABDELFATAH: At 9 years old, the brace on her leg finally came off. 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?

DAVIS: Yes.

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. 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 celebrity.

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

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

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Wilma.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Wilma.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Wilma.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Wilma.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Wilma

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Will the real Wilma Rudolph please stand up?

ABDELFATAH: 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, kind of like a sports arms race. Except the 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: In 1963, Wilma Rudolph is appointed a goodwill ambassador for the United States. And she's sent to Africa to market 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.

MAUREEN M. SMITH: Part of her being in those African countries was to basically say, what's happening in the U.S. isn't necessarily as bad as what you're seeing because, look at me.

ABDELFATAH: This is Maureen M. Smith.

SMITH: I am a faculty member at CSU Sacramento.

ABDELFATAH: She co-wrote a book called "(Re)Presenting Wilma Rudolph."

So it was while she was on the State Department tour that Wilma started to develop a political worldview, 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 clearly had an impact on her. Just weeks after she comes back from the trip, she joins a protest to integrate restaurants in her hometown. She was now an activist in the civil rights movement.

SMITH: Wilma Rudolph integrated a Shoney's in 1963, before pools were integrated in her city, before schools were integrated. Like, she was engaged in a social protest that most black athletes were shying away from.

ABDELFATAH: And the thing is, her action wasn't just symbolic. It had a real impact in Clarksville.

SMITH: Within the week, Shoney's was integrated. And then in the next two or three weeks, in Clarksville, the city pool integrated and city parks.

ABDELFATAH: It's hard to overstate just how much Wilma Rudolph was taking on. She was still young, just 23 years old, with her whole life ahead of her. And she was someone who was seen as apolitical - a celebrity, a beautiful face on a world-class athlete. But here she was taking on segregation in Tennessee.

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: I had no idea this other side of her existed.

ABDELFATAH: I mean, I'm not surprised. Like, why would you have heard about it? Her political activism was not part of her story. The media ignored this side of her, and then they just kept ignoring her. Because remember, she was, like, America's sweetheart - superstar, Beyonce status - but no one wanted to see her in this activist role.

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 so she fell out of the public eye. What seemed like a career ripe for endorsements and high-profile positions just stalled.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RUDOLPH: Black women are still at the bottom of the totem pole in athletics.

ABDELFATAH: This is from a 1978 interview that she did with NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RUDOLPH: There there's never been a black woman that has had a top endorsement for any athletic equipment company. So that is still there, and there's still a fight and still a struggle.

ABDELFATAH: 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 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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

ABDELFATAH: Kind of. She goes on to be a teacher and a coach but never regains her fame. She gets frozen in history as an Olympic superstar - end of story. And I think the element of sexism here has to be talked about because the media then couldn't handle both sides of Wilma Rudolph, that this soft-spoken, beautiful woman could also be a defiant, rebellious activist, just by taking a stand. And I think people should know all of Wilma Rudolph, that she's part of this tradition of black activist athletes.

EDWARDS: She is one of them and a sorely needed model and exemplary personality of growth, of commitment, of honesty, of personal integrity. I can't think of anyone who would be as critically important as the example set by Wilma Rudolph.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Part III - Mahmoud.

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

ABDELFATAH: Right.

ARABLOUEI: But now I want to tell you about an athlete who was never really known outside of the basketball world, outside of the NBA. And I want to make the argument that his story is the closest thing we've seen to the Colin Kaepernick story.

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

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

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Denver, 4-0. Works on Morris, double-team. Now Mahmoud again, left corner for three. It's good.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Seems like a double-team.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Mahmoud, getting rid of Stockton. Yes, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: He is really a light...

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Mahmoud for three. This place...

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

ARABLOUEI: Yeah, you might have heard of him. He was really good. He was in the All-Star game, dunk contest one year. He won most improved player one year. And he played most of his career for the Denver Nuggets in the 1990s. And he was so much fun to watch. Yeah. I think the player I'd compare him to now is Stephen Curry.

ABDELFATAH: Wow. So he was really good.

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

ABDELFATAH: I figured because of his name.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah. And it's really interesting because, up until his second year in the NBA, he went by the name Chris Jackson. He converted to Islam before his second year. And his conversion was also, like, a process of political awakening.

ABDELFATAH: I think I see where this is going.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: And here he is reflecting about it at a public meeting in an Islamic center in Michigan back in 2013.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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

ARABLOUEI: 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.

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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: 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.

ABDELFATAH: Uh-oh.

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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'd like to talk to you. Would you like to talk to him? I ain't see nothing up, 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.

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

ARABLOUEI: And here's that answer in 1996.

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ABDUL-RAUF: 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.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: 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.

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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: Well, actually, before I tell you, we have to go on a short historical detour.

ABDELFATAH: All right, this better be good.

ARABLOUEI: No, it's going to be great. Trust me. I'll deliver the rest of the story.

ABDELFATAH: OK.

ARABLOUEI: But to really understand the way people reacted to Abdul-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.

ARABLOUEI: Again, that's 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: And 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: And this was a time when athletes like Michael Jordan or Charles Barkley wouldn't 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

CHARLES BARKLEY: I am not a role model.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL THUMPING)

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 the opposite of the 1960s in a lot of ways. But there's also a crazy irony here, which is that all the work that was done in the 1960s by activist athletes opened up the path for people like Michael Jordan to make all the money that he made. But then it became this high-stakes money game, and athletes were afraid to be outspoken.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, it's a weird cycle.

ARABLOUEI: And now we can go back to Abdul-Rauf...

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

ARABLOUEI: ...Because it's in this context that he, as a black Muslim NBA player in the prime of his career, 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's post first World Trade Center bombing.

ABDELFATAH: Right, right.

ARABLOUEI: So tensions were high. And the condemnations came from everywhere. So just a few weeks after that interview...

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #8: 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 Abdul-Rauf reached an agreement. He would stand for the national anthem and pray. But it was too late.

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ABDUL-RAUF: They sort of just slowly just erased 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 coaches' decision. I got a lot of those. And so after that, after those years were up, I just - you know, I'm done. I mean, I'm done. I'm tired of the politics of it. I'm going home.

ARABLOUEI: So Abdul-Rauf's story has a sad ending. Within a couple of years, he's also hit with illness and injury. And his career is in full decline. And it never really recovers.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, his story ends in a pretty familiar way.

ARABLOUEI: It's a pattern we saw with all the athletes on this episode. And Rund, honestly, it just leaves me feeling depressed.

ABDELFATAH: It's really bleak. Like, they pay a heavy price for their rebellion.

ARABLOUEI: And it's a story that repeats over a 100-year span.

ABDELFATAH: But hear me out here. There may be some hope with what we're seeing today - like, for example, LeBron James, OK? He's really outspoken. And he's still the most famous athlete in the world. Even Colin Kaepernick is someone we're still talking about. He's gotten support from, you know, other players and an endorsement from Nike.

ARABLOUEI: But he's still not playing football, right?

ABDELFATAH: True. Yeah, true.

ARABLOUEI: And it just makes me think, what's next? In five years, when the next athlete decides to stand up, what's going to happen to them?

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

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah. And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE.

ARABLOUEI: This episode was produced by me and Rund.

ABDELFATAH: Our team includes...

JAMIE YORK, BYLINE: Jamie York.

JORDANA HOCHMAN, BYLINE: Jordana Hochman.

LAWRENCE WU, BYLINE: Lawrence Wu.

MICHELLE LANZ, BYLINE: Yo, yo, it's Michelle Lanz.

N'JERI EATON, BYLINE: N'jeri Eaton.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks also to Anya Grunmann.

ARABLOUEI: Chris Turpin.

ABDELFATAH: Tom Goldman.

ARABLOUEI: And Katie Daugert.

ABDELFATAH: Our music was composed by Drop Electric.

ARABLOUEI: And let's keep the conversation going. If you have an idea or thoughts on an episode, hit us up on Twitter @throughlinenpr. Or send us an email to throughline@npr.org.

ABDELFATAH: If you liked the show, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts.

ARABLOUEI: And tell your friends to subscribe.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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