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Abdul-Jabbar Admires Athletes Who Make An Activist Statement

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, an athlete who's made political statements, is talking about another athlete who's doing the same. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers has been declining to stand for the national anthem before games.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

At a preseason contest last night, he went down on one knee. Kaepernick said again, last night, that he loves America. He just wants to call attention to the shootings of black people by police.

INSKEEP: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is defending Kaepernick against fierce criticism. Abdul-Jabbar was a basketball star at UCLA in the 1960s and then one of the great pro basketball players ever. His latest book is called "Writings On The Wall: Searching For A New Equality Beyond Black And White."

KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR: The fact that Mr. Kaepernick is willing to engage and willing to risk so much in order to bring attention to the issue - I think we have to admire him for that and respect his need to make the statement that he's making.

INSKEEP: Are there rules for an athlete who feels that pull of conscience in a situation like this? Like, I want to do this but not too often. It's entertainment. I shouldn't do it too much. It might damage my career. It might offend people. Are there boundaries that you have to respect?

ABDUL-JABBAR: Each individual has to figure out what he or she is comfortable with.

INSKEEP: How'd you do that?

ABDUL-JABBAR: Right after the assassination of Dr. King, I was involved in a demonstration on the UCLA campus.

INSKEEP: 1968, yeah.

ABDUL-JABBAR: Yeah, 1968, and, you know, we just stood along Bruin Walk. And I had people criticize me for standing out there - people that felt that the fact that I was getting the opportunity to play in the NBA - I should be very grateful for that and not rock the boat. But the assassination of Dr. King was a tragedy for our country. And I wanted to demonstrate my concern with what was going on.

INSKEEP: Did you have a moment before going out there of thinking, you know, I'm a name, I'm a college basketball star, people are going to hammer me for this?

ABDUL-JABBAR: I knew that I would get criticized. I was on a show with Joe Garagiola where he suggested that I leave the country, you know, because I said that, at times, America is not living up to its responsibility to all of its citizens. And he said, well, maybe you should go someplace else.

INSKEEP: Donald Trump said something like that about Colin Kaepernick - said maybe he should find a country that suits him better.

ABDUL-JABBAR: That's his opinion. I noticed that he wasn't very eager to go over to Vietnam. So I don't think he can throw any stones here in this instance.

INSKEEP: That's interesting. You mentioned Vietnam. Some people have noted that one of your acts that was seen as political was appearing in support of Muhammad Ali when he chose to refuse a draft notice.

ABDUL-JABBAR: Yes.

INSKEEP: What did you do?

ABDUL-JABBAR: Well, I just attended a meeting in Cleveland, Ohio, that was called together by Jim Brown and Bill Russell and a number of NFL athletes. And we just wanted to get together to see if we could help Ali in his dealings with the federal government because he had the support of the black community, who understood that the war was really a political issue and not one that had anything to do with threats to the vital interests of the United States.

INSKEEP: And what happened after you went to that meeting?

ABDUL-JABBAR: He had to go and deal with having his title removed and his license to box removed. You know, that was his livelihood. He risked a whole lot. But he didn't feel that it made any difference because he knew that he was right on the morality of the issues. And he stuck to his guns.

INSKEEP: Do you think that any of your political acts over the years made a difference?

ABDUL-JABBAR: I know that some of my political acts have made a difference from time to time and that I've helped raise awareness. And raising awareness on these issues is a key to meaningful dialogue.

INSKEEP: In this book, you make a number of suggestions that are particularly interesting in the middle of this election year and one especially caught my eye. You suggest that we should stop encouraging people who don't want to vote to vote. Don't try so hard to get people who aren't that motivated to the polls. Why did you write that?

ABDUL-JABBAR: Ignorance is not something that lends itself to a meaningful discussion. Some of these people really shouldn't vote because they don't know what the issues are. And I think people that are, you know, voting in the blind are doing a disservice to our country by not being better-informed.

INSKEEP: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the author of "Writings On The Wall." Thanks very much.

ABDUL-JABBAR: Thanks. Take care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.