NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has labelled a rule agreed by NFL owners earlier this year, introducing fines for players who failed to stand during the US anthem, as a “disgrace to the constitution”.
The controversial topic prompted a backlash against the NFL last month when it was revealed Miami Dolphins players could face a suspension of up to four games for protesting under a new team policy.
The NFL has since backtracked on the decision, which was reached by owners in May, as it plots how to move forward on the divisive issue, though Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones later said he will not support any of his players who remain in the locker room during the national anthem.
Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time leading point-scorer and a 19-time All Star, boycotted the 1968 Olympics over the unequal treatment African-Americans in the US and has been outspoken on issues of race and religion since retiring, frequently defending Islam.
The 71-year-old has now taken aim at NFL owners in an open letter in The Guardian, for attempting to suppress NFL players’ rights to peacefully protest what they view as social inequality and injustice.
Addressing the NFL owners’ policy decision in May, Abdul-Jabbar wrote: “You stood at the precipice of history tasked with deciding whether to choose the principles of the US Constitution over profits of commerce, patriotism over pandering, morality over mob mentality, promoting social justice over pushing beers. Sadly, you blinked.
“Courage, it seems, is expected only of players.”
Colin Kaepernick was the first NFL player to take a knee, when he was a member of the San Francisco 49ers, in the third preseason game of 2016.
He continued to do so throughout that season, despite growing controversy around his actions, and was joined by some of his 49ers team-mates, including safety Eric Reid, as well as other players around the NFL.
Kaepernick, who led the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2012, has remained unsigned since hitting free agency prior to last season. Reid became a free agent after the 2017 season and also remains unsigned.
Both have filed collusion grievances against the NFL.
1:02 US President Donald Trump reacts in May to the NFL's decision to ban players from kneeling during the national anthem
Abdul-Jabbar believes punishing players for exercising their right to peacefully protest is against everything the US Constitution stands for.
“To deny players the right to express their frustration in a peaceful manner is a disgrace to the Constitution, the opposite of patriotism,” Abdul-Jabbar continued.
“By compromising ethics to economy, you show moral weakness.”
Of the NFL’s 32 teams, 30 have a Caucasian owner. The exceptions are Jaguars owner Shahid Khan, who was born in Lahore, Pakistan, and the Green Bay Packers, who are a publicly owned, non-profit corporation.
Four of the people leading NFL franchises were commended by Abdul-Jabbar for not “cowering under the false flag of patriotism to hide their shame”.
Those were New York Jets chairman and CEO Christopher Johnson, New York Giants co-owner Steve Tisch, Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie and 49ers CEO Jed York.
Abdul-Jabbar feels the remaining NFL owners should not be dictating to players – the majority of whom do not come from privileged backgrounds – what does and does not constitute the type of social injustice that is worthy of speaking out against.
“Denying your players their freedom to express their concerns sends a clear message that you don’t value your black players’ values,” Abdul-Jabbar added.
“You’re telling them that they must abide by your white perception of social justice even though you have no experience with the kind of institutional injustice that robs their community of lives, hope and a future.
“You are owners in that you own the franchise, but you don’t own the players or their hearts and minds.”