Today in Sports History: March 12th

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(Abdul-Rauf in front of the US flag. Photo courtesy of the AP)

3/12/1996 - Mahmoud suspended for anthem absences

America is a nation that prides itself on having freedom of speech, but it often recoils when that freedom is used in an alien or unfamiliar way (i.e, the Dixie Chicks). Former NBA player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf found that out in 1996. Born as Chris Jackson, Mahmoud embraced Islam shortly after being drafted by the Denver Nuggets. He quickly earned a reputation as one of the league's best shooters and finished his career as a 90% foul shooter, even though suffered from Tourette's Syndrome.

But there were some things the fans didn't appreciate that he did on the court, mainly his decision to stay in the locker room during the Star-Spangled Banner. Fans started to take notice and with the help of Denver talk shows the issue turned into a nation-wide commotion. The NBA, who had allowed Mahmoud to do as he pleased, caved under the pressure and asked him to appear during the anthem.

Abdul-Rauf refused, citing that it conflicted with his Muslim beliefs to worship the American flag. "It's also a symbol of oppression, of tyranny," Mahmoud said, "so it depends on how you look at it. I think this country has a long history of that. If you look at history, I don't think you can argue the facts." Various Muslims disputed Mahmoud's claims that it violated the Qur'an, including Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon. Player reaction was mixed, although polls even conducted in Denver showed that fans were fervently against his stance. Nevertheless, Mahmoud remained adamant in his decision.

Finally, the league suspended him indefinitely for refusing to "stand and line up in a dignified posture" during the national anthem. The suspension would only last one game; Abdul-Rauf agreed to remain on the floor as long as he could look down at his hands and pray. The compromise saved Mahmoud from further punishment, but it didn't placate the fans, who booed him the rest of his career.

After the season, the Nuggets traded Abdul-Rauf to the Sacramento Kings, even though he had been their leading scorer the previous four seasons. Mahmoud quit the NBA after just two seasons with the Kings, stating that he was disappointed in the fans' reaction. "I left the NBA because I started to lose the desire and enthusiasm to play, but also of what was happening, especially after the anthem," he said. "It seemed like my career was just going downhill. I couldn't get any playing time. They had a hands-off approach to me. Nobody wanted to touch me. And I felt that it was unjustified. And I was just tired of it."

Abdul-Rauf would later become the victim of vandalization. In 2001, his house, which had previously been graffitied and damaged by people who wrote "KKK" on the walls, burned down, presumably by arsonists. "This is just an indication, I think, of how far we've got to go in terms of human relations in this country," Abdul-Rauf said.

3/12/2006 - Edgerrin James heads to AZ

With the Indianapolis Colts unwilling to re-sign him due to his expensive price tag, running back Edgerrin James signs with the Arizona Cardinals for four years and $30 million. It was one of the highest contracts ever given to a running back.

Many thought the addition of James would give the lowly Cardinals a much-needed boost. However James, who came onto the team as a 27 year-old, got old in a hurry. In his three years in Arizona, Edge had only five regular season rushes of 20 yards or more. With his production wavering, James was benched for half of the 2008 season. He later returned to the lineup and played well in the postseason, though when the Cardinals advanced to the Super Bowl, James had a very poor game.

After the Cards' last-second defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the former Pro Bowler asked to be released. And in April 2009, after drafting Ohio RB Cris "Beanie" Wells, the Cardinals did just that.

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