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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Antifa banners should be allowed at sporting events because they're the same as MAGA hats, the national anthem
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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Antifa banners should be allowed at sporting events because they're the same as MAGA hats, the national anthem

'Banning fans' free speech is not consistent with our vision of sport'

Retired NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar says that if MAGA hats and the national anthem are permitted at sports events, other political acts — including Antifa-related messages — should be permitted as well.

What are the details?

In a lengthy op-ed in The Guardian, Abdul-Jabbar writes that putting the kibosh on fans' and athletes' free speech is "not consistent with our vision of sport" or democracy.

He points out the Portland Timbers as a recent example. The club banned several fans after they were reportedly caught waving the Iron Front banner at games, a violation of the MLS rules prohibiting political signage at games.

The Iron Front symbol, according to The Oregonian, is "an emblem with three arrows pointing downward which was first used by an anti-Nazi paramilitary organization in Germany in the 1930s." You can read more about the Portland incident here.

Abdul-Jabbar explained that if MAGA hats are allowed, so should Antifa-related products. Anything goes, so long as it doesn't "interfere with fans watching" the events, he said.

"What leagues can do is insist that expressions of political allegiance are maintained within consistent parameters that insure they don't interfere with fans watching the event they paid to enjoy," he reasoned. "By consistent, I mean that if a stadium allows American flags or team banners to be waved or displayed, then they should allow political flags and banners of the same size to be waved by fans, as long as they don't promote symbols of hate and violence, such as swastikas."

"If you allow a MAGA hat or T-shirt then you have to allow an Iron Front hat or T-shirt," Abdul-Jabbar qualified.

Fans are entitled to the same rights as players

Abdul-Jabbar, who played 20 years for the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, also pointed out that sporting events shouldn't even permit the playing of the national anthem if events are supposed to be nonpolitical. He added that he supports athletes' right to demonstrate and protest, so long as it doesn't interfere with the game. Fans, according to his school of thought, should have the same sort of rights.

"The first problem with the stance that sporting events should be nonpolitical is that the playing of the national anthem itself introduces politics into the sporting event," Abdul-Jabbar said. "It's blatantly pandering in an effort to associate the event with patriotism, akin to a politician kissing a baby or petting a puppy. It's like telling a fan, 'You're being patriotic just by being here, slurping beer and chomping a hot dog.'

"There is nothing patriotic about a ball passing over a goal-line or through a hoop and we shouldn't sanctify our games as a litmus test of who deserves to express their opinions," he later noted. "Teams should have the right to make such deals, but they shouldn't then suppress free speech while they're busy selling the right to speak to the highest bidder."

Human interactions are the most important

Abdul-Jabbar, 72, insisted that "fear is the greatest enemy of free speech," and "facts are the greatest cure to that fear."

"Thomas Jefferson urged us to 'educate and inform the whole mass of the people,'" he recalled. "'They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.' But, with so many Russian trolls disseminating false information in an effort to sway our elections, with a president who lies on a daily basis, with news outlets like Fox News that have been proven to report misinformation, and with most people restricting their input of information to sources they already agree with, sometimes the only way to convey an opposing opinion to the population at large is through public gatherings. Which is why it's all the more important to make sure those avenues of expression stay open."

Abdul-Jabbar said that sports is universally beloved because it oftentimes sums up fan interaction as humanity at its best: 'fair play, meritocracy, sportsmanship, competitiveness, striving to be better, [and] pushing the limits of human achievement."

"Curtailing the free speech of athletes or fans is not consistent with our vision of sports. Or our vision of democracy," he concluded.

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