Standing for convictions beats standing for flag

March 16, 1996|By GREGORY KANE

It's getting so a guy can't just sit back, relax and enjoy a good professional basketball game anymore. This past Tuesday I was watching TNT's weekly game when I learned that the NBA had suspended indefinitely and without pay Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf.

What did Abdul-Rauf do to get the heave-ho? Commit some flagrantly violent foul? Gamble? Nope. NBA honchos considered his offense much more serious. Abdul-Rauf took his Islamic religion seriously enough to claim that he couldn't in clear conscience stand while the national anthem was being played.

Just last month, New York Knicks forward J. R. Reid bashed his elbow into the mouth of Phoenix Suns forward A. C. Green, leaving two of the victim's teeth on the arena floor. League officials thought such felonious assault warranted a mere two-game suspension and a $10,000 fine. That amounts to a wrist slap and a 50-cent penalty for folks like you and me who make only ordinary wages.

But not standing for the national anthem now there's a transgression worth a much more serious punishment. Abdul-Rauf, in his explanation, said standing amounted to worshiping a flag he feels represents tyranny and oppression.

"This country has a long history of that," Abdul-Rauf explained. "I don't think you can argue the facts. You can't be for God and for oppression."

You and I may read American history and disagree with Abdul-Rauf's interpretation. Did the flag represent "tyranny and oppression" when the 178,000 black troops fought for it during the Civil War or when the Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th Calvary saved Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War?

I, for one, feel that if Abdul-Rauf is comfortable with the continuing war of Arab Muslims in the Sudan against Christian and non-Christian blacks in the southern part of that country a conflict that has gone on intermittently for over 1,300 years he shouldn't have any trouble standing for the American anthem.

But the point is this guy has done some reading. He's no longer a jock who goes out to perform for a crowd. He has a brain in his head. He can think. So the guy's a threat to NBA officials. What he did amounts to insurrection. Those great minds that run the NBA aren't having it.

"It's a simple procedural rule, and the rule applies to everyone," NBA spokesman Brian McIntyre inveighed from league offices of the rule that says players, trainers and coaches must line up in an orderly manner for the playing of the U.S. and Canadian anthems. The bigwigs, of course, didn't take into account when they made the rule that some players might have religious objections. That's probably because they figured that players were little more than a horde of oversexed, bimbo-chasing jocks with no religious convictions to offend.

Maybe the mob running the NBA can take time out from rule-writing to peruse the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment forbids Congress from making any law prohibiting free speech or preventing the free practice of religion. When league officials protest they are not Congress, someone can simply tell them to scroll down to the Ninth Amendment, which reads:

"The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."

The Founding Fathers, in their wisdom, probably added this amendment to keep entities like the NBA from running roughshod over the rights of people like Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. Reggie Theus, an announcer for TNT, said that Abdul-Rauf "can't disrespect the flag." The implication is that it's perfectly acceptable for NBA officials to disrespect constitutional rights. Given a choice between disrespecting the flag or trouncing rights guaranteed by the Constitution, dissing the flag sounds like the better option.

The flag-wavers will no doubt protest. Soon after Abdul-Rauf's suspension, Ed Wearing, state commander of the American Legion veterans organization in Colorado, equated the basketball player's anti-standing stance with treason. Way to keep things in perspective there, Ed. But you and other flag worshipers might want to consider whether it's better to live in a country with a flag and no Bill of Rights or one with a Bill of Rights and no flag. I'd choose the latter in a New York second.

For now, those who have elevated the flag to near deity status have carried the day. On Thursday Abdul-Rauf agreed to stand during the national anthem and pray. I don't know what he'll pray about, but I have one suggestion. Abdul-Rauf might pray that in the future the NBA might want to respect religious freedom, recognize some priorities by meting out greater punishment against elbow-throwing thugs and try to be more tolerant of those players who stand by their convictions.

Gregory P. Kane's column appears on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Pub Date: 3/16/96

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