I recently interviewed former NBA player Matt Barnes for my show Rematch, where he spoke about meeting Joe Biden before the November presidential election. Barnes and a coalition of prominent black influencers, including billionaire businessman Robert F Smith, CNN’s Van Jones, Charlamagne tha God, and film director Deon Taylor lobbied Biden on issues like the 1994 anti-crime bill, making sure he and Kamala Harris are held accountable for their policies on race and social justice going forward.
During the interview, and as we examined race in America during Black History Month, I kept thinking about how times have changed since Craig Hodges was targeted by the NBA less than 30 years ago for wanting to do the same as Barnes today. .
Hodges played in the NBA for 10 seasons and led the league in 3-point shooting three times. He won two NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls and, along with Larry Bird, is one of only two players to win three consecutive 3-point shooting contests on NBA All-Star Weekend.
But when he visited the White House in 1992 for the championship team’s ceremonial visit, he donned a dashiki and delivered a handwritten letter to the staff of then-President George HW Bush. The letter questioned the administration’s treatment of poor communities and sought an association to hold them accountable. Sounds very similar to what Barnes did with Biden, right? But that was a different time, and as a result, Hodges was subjected to a storm of public scrutiny, resentment, ridicule, and condemnation that led to his exile from the league. His career effectively ended at 32, even though he was still in his prime and in a league where shooters like Hodges often thrive into their 30s.
I interviewed Hodges for my book We matter: athletes and activism and asked how he dealt with criticism and his exile from the NBA.
“Blacks are my first love, and then basketball,” he said. “And although basketball gave me opportunities and opened doors for me throughout my life, I wasn’t going to have one without the other. That wasn’t even a question. “
Hodges isn’t the only fearless gamer I remember during Black History Month. Last summer, we witnessed entire NBA teams, as well as coaches and umpires, kneel during the national anthem to draw attention to racial injustice in the US. And I couldn’t help but remember how Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, too, Like Hodges, he was eliminated from the NBA for his beliefs. Abdul-Rauf was Kaepernick before Kaepernick, protesting during the national anthem in 1996. Like Hodges and Kaepernick, his career was not cut short because his skills were diminishing or due to injuries. It was the result of the controversy that sparked to call the flag of the United States is a symbol of oppression and racism and explains that defending the anthem would conflict with their Muslim faith.
“You cannot be for God and for oppression. It is clear from the Quran, Islam is the only way, ”he said at the time. “I don’t criticize those who stand up, so don’t criticize me for sitting down.”
Eventually, he reached a compromise with the NBA after being suspended. It was agreed that he could stand and pray with his head bowed during the national anthem. But even that was met with hostility, death threats, and public condemnation. The NBA, along with the mainstream America, turned against Abdul-Rauf and inevitably described him as an ungrateful black athlete who did not appreciate the riches and fame that basketball brought him.
Despite posting career-best numbers that season, the Denver Nuggets traded him and in 1998, at the age of 29, he was unable to do one tryout with an NBA team and went to play in Turkey.
As with Hodges, I asked Abdul-Rauf if he would do it all over again when I interviewed him for my book.
“When I make a decision, especially when I have thought about it, I stick with that decision,” he said. “Looking back at all the decisions I’ve made and looking at my life now, I see growth, I see development, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
Have things changed since then? I also spoke with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and asked him if he would ever punish a player for talking about something that Silver personally disagrees with. Because that’s always the warning: anyone can applaud someone when they agree with him.
“What is special about this league and something that I worked very hard on is making sure that players feel safe having a voice on important social issues, because I have heard from employees in other industries, other companies, athletes in other situations, where they have told me they have a strong point of view but are concerned that it will have a direct impact on their employment, “said Silver. “We have set out to encourage players to be active participants in our system. Have a voice. They have a point of view on what is happening around them “
If only Silver had been the commissioner while Hodges and Abdul-Rauf were playing. I remember reading about both in high school. I was amazed at their bravery, having the conviction to stand up for what they believed in, like the great activist athletes of the past like Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Curt Flood, John Carlos, Tommie Smith and, of course, the great Muhammad Ali.
Now that NBA stars like Draymond Green enjoy the freedom to say what they want, when they want, it’s important to remember athletes like Hodges and Abdul-Rauf. They made the sacrifice and paid the price so that today’s players can speak their minds and take the position they choose, without fear of being exiled from the NBA as a result.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism