Photograph: Brian Bahr/Getty Images
I recently interviewed former NBA player Matt Barnes for my show The Rematch, where he discussed meeting with Joe Biden before November’s 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 pushed Biden on subjects such as the 1994 Crime Bill, making sure he and Kamala Harris would be held accountable for their policies around race and social justice moving forward.
During the interview – and as we examine race in America during Black History Month – I kept thinking about how times have changed since Craig Hodges was whiteballed by the NBA less than 30 years ago for wanting to do the same thing as Barnes today.
Hodges played in the NBA for 10 seasons and led the league in three-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 three-point shooting contests at NBA All-Star weekend.
But when he visited the White House in 1992 for the ceremonial championship team visit, he wore a dashiki and delivered a handwritten letter to the staff of then president George HW Bush. The letter challenged the administration’s treatment of poor communities and sought a partnership 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 firestorm of public scrutiny, resentment, ridicule and condemnation that led to his exile from the league. His career was effectively over at 32, even though he was still in his prime and in a league where shooters such as Hodges often thrive into their late 30s.
I interviewed Hodges for my book We Matter: Athletes And Activism and asked him how he dealt with the criticism and his exile from the NBA.
Related: Craig Hodges: ‘Jordan didn’t speak out because he didn’t know what to say’
“Black people are my first love, and then basketball,” he said. “And even though basketball gave me opportunities and opened doors for me my entire life, I wasn’t going to have one without the other. That wasn’t even a question.”
Hodges is not the only courageous player I remember during Black History Month. This past summer, we witnessed entire NBA teams – as well as coaches and referees – take a knee during the national anthem to bring attention to racial injustice in the US. And I couldn’t help but also remember how Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, like Hodges, was whiteballed 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 wasn’t cut short because his skills were diminishing or because of injuries. It was the result of the controversy he sparked for calling the flag of the United States a symbol of oppression and racism and explaining that standing for the anthem would conflict with his Muslim faith.
“You can’t be for God and for oppression. It’s clear in the Qur’an, Islam is the only way,” he said at the time. “I don’t criticize those who stand, so don’t criticize me for sitting.”
He eventually came to a compromise with the NBA after being suspended. It was agreed 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 mainstream America, turned on Abdul-Rauf and he was inevitably depicted as an ungrateful Black athlete who didn’t appreciate the riches and fame basketball provided for him.
Despite recording career-best figures that season, he was traded away by the Denver Nuggets and by 1998, at the age of 29, he couldn’t get so much as a tryout with an NBA team and left to play in Turkey.
As with Hodges, I asked Abdul-Rauf if he would do it all again when I interviewed him for my book.
“When I make a decision, especially when I have thought it out, I stick to that decision,” he said. “In looking back at all of the decisions that I’ve made and looking at my life now, I see the growth, I see the development, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
Have things changed since? I also spoked with NBA commissioner Adam Silver andasked him if he would ever punish a player for speaking out on something that Silver personally disagrees with. Because that’s always the caveat: Anybody can applaud someone when they agree with them.
“What is special about this league and something I worked very hard at is making sure that players feel safe having a voice on important social matters, 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 they’re concerned that it will have a direct impact on their employment,” Silver said. “We’ve made it a point to encourage players to be active participants in our system. To have a voice. They have a point of view about what’s happening around them”
If only Silver had been the commissioner while Hodges and Abdul-Rauf were playing. I remember reading about both of those in high school. I was amazed at their courage, to have the conviction to take a stand for what they believed in like the great athlete activists of the past such as 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 whatever they want, whenever they want, it’s important to remember athletes such as Hodges and Abdul-Rauf. They made the sacrifice and paid the price so players today can speak their minds and take whatever stance they choose, without fear of being exiled from the NBA as a result.