LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - NBA Hall of Fame center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar says NFL players and other professional athletes should continue their protests against police brutality in the United States and has rejected the notion that speaking out is in any way unpatriotic.
The six-time NBA champion said protests in the NFL, where players have sat, knelt or locked arms during the pre-game playing of the national anthem, were creating a useful dialogue around long-neglected issue of race.
“I think it’s going in a good direction,” said Abdul-Jabbar, who has been a political activist since his college days and is currently raising awareness about the fight against cancer.
“They should continue to speak about the issues that are of concern to them and use their power peacefully and effectively to change this situation.
“This is a real issue for black Americans. The protests against it have a legitimate place in what the traditions of our country are all about.”
Abdul-Jabbar is as well known for his political activism as for the unstoppable ‘skyhook’ which led him to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer in a career spent mostly with the Los Angeles Lakers.
He boycotted the Olympics to protest against racial inequality as a student athlete in 1968, the same year he changed his name from Lew Alcindor after converting to Islam.
Now 70, he rejected the notion that today’s protests were in any way disrespectful to the flag or the military, as U.S. President Donald Trump has said.
“These are peaceful protests that are raising awareness of something that is of grave concern,” he said.
“People like the president of the United States don’t want to admit there is an issue.”
The NFL protests began last season when then San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the anthem amid a series of high-profile shootings of unarmed black men by police.
The key to solving the problem, Abdul-Jabbar believes, is to create dialogue between law enforcement and the low-income, minority communities where they work, which he said was starting to happen.
Abdul-Jabbar was particularly concerned by July comments by Trump in which he said police should not worry about being too “rough” when they are putting a suspect into a vehicle.
A White House spokesperson later said Trump was making a joke, but Abdul-Jabbar said it was no laughing matter.
“He said it is okay to smack their head into the frame of the car,” he said.
“That’s no joke in the black community or in the Hispanic community. Those things are done often.”
While he believes the protests by NFL players and community work by NBA players like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were having an impact, he thought America’s racial issues are a long way from being solved.
“It’s hard to measure success while there is still a body count,” he said.
“Maybe when the bodies stop falling?”
Reporting by Rory Carroll, editing by Nick Mulvenney