Former NBA player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf visited campus on Monday for a lecture on faith, sports and racial injustice.
For the past five years, Dwight Hall’s Muslim Leadership Lab has organized an annual lecture in honor of civil rights activists Betty Shabazz and Malcom X. This year, in collaboration with the Yale Chaplain’s Office and the Divinity School Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging, Abduf-Rauf was invited as the 2023 Dr. Betty Shabazz and Malcolm X Memorial Lecturer.
“The truth means more to me than anything,” Abdul-Rauf said. “I’m not always gonna be right, but if it’s something I believe in, I’m going to move on it, and I trust God is going to show me the way.”
Abdul-Rauf grew up in Gulfport, Mississippi, and played basketball in the NBA from 1990 to 2011. He is known for his refusal to stand for the Star-Spangled Banner in 1996, which led him to be temporarily suspended from the NBA.
According to Craig Birckhead-Morton ’24, Abdul-Rauf’s lecture on Monday is part of a larger set of events geared toward exploring the relationship between Islam and Black history, which include inviting Black Muslims to speak at Friday prayer services.
“Even though he was blackballed from the NBA, he returned to the spotlight recently given [media attention on] Colin Kaepernick,” Birckhead-Morton said. “I think it’s significant that he’s coming to Yale’s campus to speak to a population that’s privileged and elite about the importance of standing up for justice in the face of all the incentives to give up your values and integrity and sacrifice truth for material wealth, prestige and careerism. He didn’t do that.”
Birckhead-Morton said this message is important not just for Black or Muslim students but for “the whole Yale community.”
Abdul-Rauf began the talk by discussing his background and journey to basketball. From an early age, Abdul-Rauf saw basketball as his ticket to success, waking up at 4 a.m. to practice the sport, even in lightning or thunder.
“I was so focused because for me, basketball wasn’t just fun all the time,” Abdul-Rauf said. “Yeah, I enjoyed it, but it was life and death. If I didn’t have basketball, I don’t know what my future will say for itself. I’ve got to make it. There was no such thing as a B or C option.”
After discussing his early childhood, Abdul-Rauf talked about his experience with Tourette’s Syndrome and how it impacted his basketball playing, as well as how he was treated by his peers at school — an experience he described as being a “near-death experience” every day.
Born in 1969, he also talked about how his family’s experiences were shaped by the racial environment in Mississippi at the time, describing his family as “bold” in private but “head down” in front of white people.
Abdul-Rauf said his introduction to Malcolm X’s work was what “jumpstart[ed]” his understanding of both protest and faith, as he was fascinated by Malcom X’s courage and moved by his call for action.
“We’re taught to shrink and disappear, to play it safe,” Abdul-Rauf said. “Not to live, but to just survive, but I said I don’t want to just survive anymore.”
Abdul-Rauf tied this attitude of protest to his refusal to stand for the anthem. Even after learning he would be suspended and fined for doing so, he still refused to stand for the flag at a 1996 NBA game and was then told to leave the premises. Thinking back to that moment, Abdul-Rauf said he would not change anything about how he acted.
“I just can’t see myself standing for a symbol that has been codified in this country as a sacred mantle of American exceptionalism,” he said.
The talk also centered around the role of Abdul-Rauf’s faith in his basketball career and current work as an activist, as he converted to Islam after being introduced to Malcolm X.
Reflecting on his childhood, Abdul-Rauf said he wants to be able to help people who grew up in similar circumstances.
“I have grown up as a young Black man in this country, invisible to the world around me, not having proper clothing, proper food to eat,” Abdul-Rauf said. “I know what it feels like. … I am crying, ‘Please, God, please put me in a position to help people like this because I know how it feels.’”
Abdul-Rehman Malik, associate research scholar and lecturer in Islamic studies, helped organize the event. Malik said that the Muslim Leadership Lab was founded in 2015 out of Dwight Hall and works in the space of spirituality and social justice.
With this year as the fifth in the lecture series, Malik said he wanted to honor Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz and highlight scholars from the African American Muslim tradition, focusing on themes of gender and the intersection of faith and Black liberation from the point of view of the Muslim American experience.
“At a time when the intersection of sports and politics was frowned upon, Mahmoud took this courageous stand as an African American man who came from poverty, from the South, but also as a Muslim, who said [because of] his faith and deep commitment to the divine and to social justice, that he could not in good conscience rise for an anthem that represented racial oppression at home and American empire abroad,” Malik said.
In addition to the lecture, Malik said Abdul-Rauf met with students from the Yale Divinity School on Monday morning, as well as with faculty and students at the Afro-American Cultural Center. Abdul-Rauf is planning to speak with members of the men’s basketball team on Tuesday.
Birckhead-Morton told the News he hopes to continue highlighting revolutionary Black figures like Abdul-Rauf every year.
Past speakers for the lecture series include anthropologist Donna Auston, author and professor Sylvia Chan-Malik and professor of history Rasul Miller.