There has always been a debate on whether protest has a place in professional sports. In recent years, the NBA has become more “woke” due to superstar players like Lebron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Paul being outspoken on social issues. But the “woke” NBA hasn’t received nearly as much uproar as the recent NFL national anthem protests, started in 2016 by former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Even though Kaepernick has not been on any team’s roster this season his protest is still evident in the NFL.
The protest got even more press attention when President Trump called for NFL owners to suspend or fire players who kneel during the national anthem. The President re-shaped the point of the protest from its initial stance on racial inequality and police brutality to a disrespect of America and its flag. This has made the merge of social issues and sports resurface as a hot-button issue to many Americans.
Contrary to popular belief, sports and social issues have always been synonymous in America. Take former Chicago Bulls guard Craig Hodges.
Hodges joined the Bulls in the middle of the 1988-89 season. He had already spent six seasons in the Association as a shooting guard with the San Diego Clippers, Milwaukee Bucks, and Phoenix Suns. Hodges led the league in three-point percentage twice and became a respected player.
By the age of 32, the veteran guard with unlimited range could not find a home in the NBA. And, it does not take a scientist to figure out why.
When the Chicago Bulls visited the White House, as tradition for NBA teams after winning the NBA Finals until Trump’s episode with the Warriors, Hodges decided to use the trip for something other than a photo-op. At the President’s home, Hodges, donning a dashiki, gave then commander-in-chief, George H.W. Bush, a letter with grievances about his administration’s policies on minority and poor communities. This was not the first time the sharp-shooting guard entered into a political realm.
Prior to Game 1 of the 1991 Finals between the Michael Jordan-led Bulls and the Magic Johnson-led Los Angeles Lakers, Hodges attempted to convince the two marquee stars to sit out Game 1 to protest the Rodney King beating, which took place three months prior. Jordan’s response was that it was “too extreme.”
Hodges’ reputation had made him toxic in public relations. Following the second game of the 1992 NBA Finals, Hodges spoke out against the NBA’s lack of minority ownership and criticized Jordan for his lack of vocal involvement and support in the African-American community.
That signaled the end of Hodges’ NBA career.
Hodges’ contract was up and the Bulls were going to move on. From the Chicago Bulls’ perspective their alienation makes sense. It’s probably not the best idea to have a role player be openly critical of your best player. But, not one team could find a use for an outside-shooting veteran guard that can play the point?
Even his former coach, Phil Jackson, found it odd that Hodges was not even looked at. The Bulls front office said that Hodges’ age and defensive deficiency was the reason for his departure. Jackson responded by saying,
“I also found it strange that not a single team called to inquire about him. Usually, I get at least one call about a player we’ve decided not to sign. And yes, he couldn’t play much defense, but a lot of guys in the league can’t, but not many can shoot from his range, either.”
Jackson would eventually hire Hodges as an assistant coach under him for the Lakers, where he would help them win another two championships.
When we look today at Colin Kaepernick, the story of Craig Hodges parallels almost perfectly with Kap.
Both were above average players with a lot of talent left on the table, whose off the field activism left owners and front office personnel counting the days until they could legally dismiss them. Athletes, especially minority athletes, who speak out for something other than teams or wins understand that if they annoy the wrong, influential man their livelihood will be threatened. The history speaks for itself.
It happened to Craig Hodges. It happened to Curt Flood. It happened to Mahmoud Abdul Rauf. It’s happening to Colin Kaepernick.
I’m sure it’ll happen again to another athlete down the road.
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