Time is the capsule through which we interact with great sporting moments. One of these was when NFL San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, began kneeling as the US national anthem played, before playoffs during the 2016 season. A bold move that echoed the pulse of the Black Lives Matter movement at the time and a homage to the Black Power Fist raised by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. ‘I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of colour. To me, this is bigger than football,’ Kaepernick commented at the time. Other players would soon follow in his example. The protests made national headlines and drew strong reactions from both supporters and critics alike, all the way up to the echelons of political power. Then US President Barack Obama heralded Kaepernick’s ‘constitutional right to make a statement,’ while then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump postured: ‘I think it’s a terrible thing, and you know, maybe he should find a country that works better for him. Let him try, it won’t happen.’ It came with a hefty price though for Kaepernick, who went unsigned the following offseason, and by the time this has gone to print, has been unable to land a place on another team since.
For millennials like myself, this may have appeared as an unprecedented moment for our generation, ground-breaking even. But Kaepernick’s protest is not the only more recent example of political protest in the sporting arena. Through his publishing house, founded two years later, Kaepernick has chosen to showcase the story of a co-athlete who walked a similar trajectory just over two decades ago.
In the Blink of an Eye is a powerful testimony from former Denver Nuggets and Sacramento Kings basketball player, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (formerly Chris Jackson). From the late 1980s through to the mid-1990s, he was one of the most recognisable people in American basketball, with some record-breaking plays at the high school, collegiate and professional levels.
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf with Nick Chiles, In the Blink of An Eye: An Autobiography, Kaepernick Publishing, 2022
While the memoir charts his life’s twists, turns, trials and triumphs, he is most well known for being exiled from the NBA for praying – instead of saluting the US flag – during the national anthem before games for the 1995-6 season, just as Kaepernick did in football just over a decade later. He took the position that the US flag and national anthem were symbols of the country’s longstanding history of racial oppression. He received a one-game ban, afterwards reaching a compromise to stand for the anthem, by bowing his head in silent prayer. Abdul-Rauf’s actions generated great deal of criticism and personal turmoil which included an unoccupied house of his getting burned down. In a Blink of an Eye is a comprehensive but brutally honest and candid narrative that gives the reader a good seat, front and centre, of his story, as he intends. The book is his arena, and we, the readers, are the spectators. For the first time, we hear in his own words a full treatment of how his world was turned upside down from his decision to ‘act in conscience’, bringing to light the realities of America’s dark past and present. But it is also an important read for anyone who wants greater insight into the idiosyncrasies of how American sport and race perversely coalesce for the Black athlete.
History shows us that sportsmanship can be a political act and that it should not be taken for granted. We are made to believe spaces that platform the very best of professional athleticism and competitive sport represent neutrality and equal advantage for those who perform and those who spectate. That is to say, all game players are equal, with none given an ‘unfair’ advantage over their competitor. But there are nuances to this. For instance, what does ‘equal advantage’ mean during games like the Olympics when countries whose infrastructures have been blighted and impacted by colonialism or warfare compete against countries who have in time been the orchestrators of those same atrocities? If these spaces are to be considered ‘politically neutral’, what are we supposed to make of authoritarian regimes that have used sporting events to bolster their country’s image or power? If the recent detainment of Women’s National Basketball Association Star Brittney Griner in Russia for alleged drug use is anything to go by, realpolitik even has the power to implicate sports with ‘Cold War’effect.
And yet those same spaces have also given way to special moments, created by people who’ve moved hearts or minds on issues of inequality while traversing the field, track, or tennis court. Others have done this just by their presence alone. The United States has a litany of examples from within the African-American community who form an important cornerstone for the discourse. Jesse Owens, an African-American track and field athlete, who won four gold medals during the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin was the most successful of any athlete at the games. German Nazi leader, Adolf Hitler, chose to snub, rather than meet and congratulate Owens, as his performance trumped the idea of Aryan superiority, which was used to legitimise the Nazi regime at the time.
US tennis great, Serena Williams, may have retired to much acclaim and accolade in 2022, (having won more Grand Slam singles titles – 23 – than any other person during the open era), but she (and her sister Venus) faced a barrage of misogynoir, on and off the court during the length and breadth of her career. British writer and broadcaster, Afua Hirsch poignantly describes William’s unexpected meteoric rise in the sport’ (which was largely white and middle class) as the part that she has played in ‘problematising’ the ‘American Dream’.
US boxing legend, Muhammad Ali who ‘stung like a butterfly’ in the ring, found his career interrupted after he refused military conscription for the Vietnam War. Ali attended the compulsory induction in 1967 but refused to answer to his name or take the oath. This led to his arrest and conviction, which the US Supreme Court later overturned in 1971. He said priorly, ‘I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality’.
The controversy surrounding Abdul-Rauf’s protest is therefore a fitting opening to the book: ‘Of course, white American politicians can speak all day long about America’s wrongs. But, as I quickly learned, if a Black athlete making millions of dollars claims that America is corrupt, the sky will come crashing down on his head.’ I must admit that I had some initial reservations about whether I wanted to dig into his protest right away. I thought it would ruin the anticipation that often comes with chronological storytelling, especially of the biographical kind. In other words, I wanted the crescendo. But as I would come to find out during the course of reading the memoir, this most contentious and prolific part of his life was a minuscule part of a larger whole. One could fully appreciate the other parts of his life – particularly the difficult moments – that made his career in the NBA and subsequent life both possible and remarkable. He was and is more than a dissenter.
Born in Gulfport, Mississippi, five years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed, and almost one year after the assassination of Civil Rights Leader, Dr Martin Luther King, we learn Abdul-Rauf grapples with a Tourette condition, which was not diagnosed until his later years. It was the first of many trials to come his way and one that remains with him until this day. Sports, and especially basketball, became his saving grace from ‘ridicule’ from his classmates. He began nurturing an insatiable drive to fulfil his dream of one day playing professionally. He takes us through the strict regime he pledged to commit to, waking up as early as 5 am to ‘work on his game’, even leveraging his love for basketball against his first girlfriend, which I found comedic.
Abdul-Rauf faced struggles one would expect of any young man, from the complex relationship with his mother to his dealing with community members, some of whom appear to have taken advantage of his success as a rising star, including as he says, his basketball coach. And yet one cannot help but admire his commitment to his craft, which naturally pays off for him after he plays at Louisiana State University. During the 1988–89 season, he was hailed a ‘sport wonder’, averaging 30 points per game and scoring a total of 965 points, both of which were records for a freshman player at the NCAA Division I level. He earned numerous awards such as the South-eastern Conference Player of the Year and Sports Illustrated did a cover story of him for its February 1989 issue.
But it’s the lack of academic support for him that stood out the most to me, and his perspective offers a window into the precarious nature of being a Black male student-athlete.
There is a litany of literature revealing how money-generating collegiate athletics is not free from the politicisation of identity, and as such, the infrastructures continuously disfavour the Black student-athlete. College GPA scores, college persistence rate, and college graduation rates tend to be significantly lower for Black men, who are reported to have the lowest graduation rates of any group. That’s 55% to 70% for student-athletes in total while making up half of all NCAA Division 1 football and basketball teams, according to a study devised by the University of Southern California. Abdul Rauf’s candid narrative is an important addition to the canon of research that exists on the subject, but it’s an important backdrop to how promising he was, to begin with, ahead of the problem that would follow at the height of his NBA career, when he played for the Sacramento Kings, after his first draft with the Denver Nuggets.
His immersion in history, world events and social commentary grew, matched only by his love for his sport. It would eventually lead him to read Alex Haley’s critically-acclaimed Autobiography of Malcolm X. He says, ‘NBA basketball wasn’t enough…I needed a more profound way to make sense of it all…The words of Malcolm X were still bouncing around in my head…I wanted to be more like Malcolm’. He wanted to understand more of what was being to me and my people.’He wanted to learn more about Islam, and after reading two to three pages of the Qur’an, he decided he wanted to become Muslim. He was given the name Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf by the Muslim community in Denver. This was in 1991.
The memoir is an important testament to the power the autobiography of Malcolm X has wielded in the public imagination of Islam in the US since its release in 1965. More specifically, the candid, intellectual approach Malcolm X used to tell his life story lays bare the systemic failings of the country towards its Black citizens, and its social conditioning which made possible his criminal past. As such, Abdul-Rauf is notably following the same literary tradition as his hero and that of another NBA legend Kareem Abdul Jabbar, formerly Lew Alcindor. An Al-Jazeera article cites him as saying he found a similar path to Islam through Malcolm X’s story and subsequently the Qur’an.
But their conversion to Islam and decision to adopt new names are also reflective of a wider discourse that has, and continues, to take place among African Americans. This includes how one identifies as a person or peoples of African descent, with a history of a disruption in their ties to their ancestral home of West and Central Africa. This process of ‘reclaiming’ their identities is made up of various phases, from formerly enslaved peoples taking on the names of their ex-captors to the use of African and Arabic names during the Black Cultural Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The relationship between Islamic heritage and the Black Power Movement meant many Black Americans embraced names such as Aaliyah, Fatima, Assata and Afeni. Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali are prominent examples of this, as the Netflix film ‘Blood Brothers’ shows. In Ali’s case, this included the difficulty some American media commentators had in accepting his new ‘unchristian’ and ‘non-European’ names; and who questioned if he was still ‘American’ and ‘patriotic’. When such a narrow depiction of patriotism is so easily heralded in professional sports against those who are not of Anglo-European descent or Christian practice, it’s easy to understand why, as Abdul-Rauf explains, there was an unwarranted uneasiness and difficulty some had with his new identity and spiritual practice. Paradoxically, he, like Ali, was a celebrity Muslim, who was expected to provide commentary on US domestic and foreign policies, where it concerned ‘his community’. Similarly to Ali’s critique on US foreign policy during the Vietnam War, Abdul-Rauf’s critique of US foreign policy in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in New York led, by his own admission, to the curtailment of his career.
Following his ailing career in the US, Abdul-Rauf launched his international basketball career (which included short stints in Japan and Saudi Arabia). As a ‘Black Istanbulian’, I was surprised and thrilled to learn that he played for a team in Turkey. However, it is clear by this point in the memoir, that Abdul-Rauf is falling out of love with basketball. He slowly makes room for his newfound faith and a greater involvement with world politics that takes him on another unexpected journey in mentoring and public speaking.
In the Blink of an Eye is an eye-opening memoir. It is a stark reminder of the importance of how Black Muslim sports personalities have historically driven forward conversations that have tested the conscience of their countries.