Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is an NBA all-time great, holding career records for points scored, MVP awards, blocks, and more. Abdul-Jabbar has since been an outspoken activist, author, and celebrity. He responded to questions via email in advance of his talk, “Writings on the Wall: Searching for a New Equality Beyond Black & White” on Nov. 5 at the Palestra.
Why have sports become a political matter? Is it a good thing for sports to intersect so openly with politics, as opposed to the idea that sports are used as a distraction for politics?
I’m a little surprised by your question because you seem to think that sports as a political topic is a new thing. It definitely is not. In 1936, the German Nazi Party was a bastion of people who believed in white supremacy. Their leader, Adolf Hitler, was against any Jews participating in the Olympic Games that were to be held in Berlin. The Chairman of the US Olympic Committee was willing to go along with Hitler’s demands. When Jesse Owens, a black track athlete from Ohio State, was able to win four gold medals, it forced an irate Hitler to storm out of the stadium, furious that white supremacy was no more than a fantasy.
Sports and politics were entwined when Muhammad Ali refused to serve in Vietnam or when Jackie Robinson integrated professional baseball. In all of these scenarios, sports and politics became entangled, and this will be the case as long as sports is such an important part of our culture.
Game scores in the NBA have been very high so far this season. Do you think your career points record will ever be broken?
I don’t think my career scoring record will be broken because the game has evolved to the point where players don’t play long enough to score the requisite number of points. My 20 year career puts a serious longevity factor into play. The person who breaks my record will be someone that can deal with life on the road for a serious chunk of time.
How should supporters of Colin Kaepernick’s protests (along with many others) keep the focus on the issues of mass incarceration and police brutality and not on Donald Trump or the freedom of speech?
People who want to support [Kaepernick] should try to promote communication between law enforcement and their neighbors. One glaring issue is the fact that the people who are officers rarely live in the neighborhood that they patrol. They often don’t know the people who live in these areas, and the lack of familiarity is an extremely corrosive part of the problem. The residents of these communities are seen as the enemy. The police are seen as the enemy, and those stereotypes are hard to overcome. Poverty and racism are additional factors that inflame things. So, we need to try to get to a point that allows us to see each side as people. The police must maintain order. The people on the street want to be safe. We must encourage real communication that will make that goal attainable.
How should activists work to get young people on campus more involved in advocacy for social justice?
Young people are the most difficult to persuade to actually spend the time to register and vote. I see it as being naive about how valuable their vote is. Very rarely do protests from the younger part of the population result in votes at the ballot box. Yet younger citizens are often the most vocal in identifying issues that excite the electorate. We need to find a way to get the youngsters to walk it like they talk it.
What is the biggest regret of your career as a player, celebrity, or activist?
When I played at UCLA, Coach Wooden was often critical of the demands for interviews from the media. He would make us available for a bit of time, but he made sure they were not too intrusive. I took this attitude of suspicion with me into my professional career. Not a good tactic! In addition, the writers were older and very conservative. There was a friction that was just under the surface because those writers knew of my stance on the Olympics and Muhammed Ali in his dispute with the federal government over Vietnam.