WASHINGTON — Six-time NBA most valuable player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said professional athletes fear that joining the racial protest spearheaded by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick could potentially ruin their personal brands.
Abdul-Jabbar spoke Monday at the National Press Club, where he discussed the role of athletes and social justice along with his views on the racial divide in America.
Kaepernick started the movement among NFL players, after sitting during the national anthem in the preseason. The quarterback said his protest gives a voice to those who are oppressed and are not properly represented in the country. His message quickly permeated the NFL, spreading to players across the league, and eventually making its way to the NBA preseason.
The six-time NBA champion said he had the opportunity to speak with Kaepernick early in his protest “before he did something really crazy.” Abdul-Jabbar said he respects Kaepernick’s motivation to bring change and “make the country a better place.”
“(Kaepernick is) going to get there,” Abdul-Jabbar said “He’s going to do what he feels is necessary to get people to start thinking.”
The former Milwaukee and Los Angeles center said he is pleased with the movement of Kaepernick’s message throughout professional sports, and is expecting NBA players to carry on the protest as it begins its season later this month.
“At the ESPY awards LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul all had something to say about the same issues that Colin Kaepernick is talking about and doing it in a way that invites discussion or reasonable conversation as opposed to making people angry,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “That’s what I want and I’m very happy to see that’s how it’s worked out.”
However, protesting on the national stage poses a risk for athletes and their brands, according to Abdul-Jabbar.
Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall lost two endorsements following his season-opening protest during the anthem. Both CenturyLink and Air Academy Credit Union said they could no longer maintain their partnerships with Marshall.
But Abdul-Jabbar said athletes should use Muhammed Ali as an example for their role in social justice.
“He was willing to sacrifice three of his primary years as the world heavyweight champion because of the fact that we were fighting an unjust and illegal war in Vietnam,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “He had to make a choice and he made the right choice. People didn’t agree with him at first but within a couple years both the American public and the Supreme Court agreed with him.”
Abdul-Jabbar said Kaepernick’s protest has made professional athletes realize their significance as public figures.
“Athletes are starting to realize that their value and what they can achieve on the positive side is worth the risk,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “My good friend Michael Jordan has decided to commit, and he’s given some money to the NAACP legal defense fund and to some of the police organizations in North Carolina.”
But Abdul-Jabbar, who is 69, said he can’t speak for every athlete about what the right way to protest. “There’s no template that fits everyone,” he said.
Before an audience made up largely of Washington insiders, Abdul-Jabbar also expressed his views on several other contentious issues facing the nation.
- On the election:
Abdul-Jabbar refused to tell people whom to vote on Nov. 8, but he did encourage them to vote their conscience.
The superstar center condemned Donald Trump for his comments about women and minorities, calling the Republican nominee’s remarks “reprehensible.”
“What he has to say about Muslims and people coming into the country as immigrants — he mentions Mexicans — but some of the things he has to say are just reprehensible and have really coarsened the dialogue here in our country,” Abdul-Jabbar said.
Abdul-Jabbar also called out Trump for the recent sexual assault allegations surrounding the candidate. The NBA Hall of Famer said he finds it odd that Trump for years bragged about his exploits with women “but now when these women materialize…he’s calling them liars.”
- Abdul-Jabbar on Stop-and-Frisk:
During the first presidential debate, Trump said local police need to institute the stop-and-frisk policy to reduce violence in the country.
Abdul-Jabbar said stop-and-frisk policy is wrong and is a “nuisance” for minorities.
“Those really have only served the purpose of making the lives of people of minority communities miserable because these people are stopped dozen of times for no other reason than they live in a high-crime community,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “Police have made it easier on themselves just to stop anybody for no good reason.”
- Abdul-Jabbar on Police Brutality:
Racial tensions have spiked because of the increase of police brutality, he said. Recent deaths to Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Eric Garner in New York City and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, among others, have sparked a conversation about how to bridge the racial divide and restructure the police forces.
Abdul-Jabbar said “police officials need to think about a different way to train their officers so they don’t overreact to such innocent circumstances.”
“We want to eventually get to the police officers knowing the people of the communities they police and understand that they’re people — they’re not statistics …that have problems just like any other group of people.”
Published in conjunction with Vice Sports.