The Raptors' fan base is multicultural. Why are folks surprised?


National Post, 20 June 2019

It has been demonstrated for years that sports can be a force for racial equality and harmony, even in the face of historic prejudices

There were two things being celebrated in Toronto on Monday, two things that delighted the country throughout the Raptors’ playoff run. One, the Raptors’ championship success. Two, how marvellous Toronto is, and Canada is, for which the NBA championship provided a suitable occasion for self-congratulation.

For several weeks it was not possible to hear about the Raptors without hearing about their superlative fans, and how utterly remarkable it was that Torontonians of different races were enthusiastic about their success. It was as if Toronto in 2019 made a shocking new discovery, namely that sports can be an occasion for manifesting racial harmony.

And so the celebrations on Monday were apparently an illustration of all that Toronto, and Canada, is. No, certainly not the shootings in Nathan Phillips Square and the stabbings at the Eaton Centre. The diversity. Herewith Marcus Gee in The Globe and Mail:

“The scenes on the city’s streets spoke of Canada’s success at accepting and absorbing people from all over the planet,” Gee wrote. “Every background, every language, every country was represented on those packed streets — and no one gave it a second thought.”

Actually. it was Gee’s first thought, as he wrote an entire column about it. And it was the first thought of many people, from commentators to mayors to basketball officials, who spoke more about the marvellous multiculturalism of the Raptors’ fans than they did about the Raptors themselves.

But Toronto is a little late to this party. That children of Indian immigrants would cheer the African-Americans and the Africans who emigrated to America who play for the Raptors is a good thing, but hardly novel and rather unremarkable. There have been many far more significant occasions in the combination of race and sports. We ought to be less parochial and more modest.

Just last year, after France defeated Argentina in the World Cup, the French fans were chanting “Liberté! Égalité! Mbappé!”

That was for Kylian Mbappé, the French star whose parents are from Algeria and Cameroon. Indeed, France was described by many — not without controversy — as the “last African team” in the World Cup. In 2018, as in 1998, all France cheered a World Cup champion team dominated by Africans. It was a remarkable sight in a country where immigration and integration are major drivers of national politics.

Have we forgotten the 1995 rugby world cup in South Africa? Just a year after Nelson Mandela was elected president, with the threat of violence still a present danger, one of the most powerful moments of reconciliation in the new South Africa was Mandela’s explicit support of the nearly all-white Springboks, the national rugby team. Mandela proposed that they were the national team of the new “rainbow nation” not only that of white South Africans.

When he appeared at the championship final wearing the Springboks jersey, and the mostly white crowd chanted his name — Nelson! Nelson! — everyone knew that it was a sign and cause of South Africa’s history changing for the better. That South Africa won the championship game seemed almost a bonus.

So there is no doubt that sports can be a force for racial equality and harmony, even in the face of historic prejudices.

Major League Baseball still gives pride of place to Jackie Robinson, who broke the colour barrier in 1947. His number is retired by all teams.

The cause of racial integration in the American south was advanced by the imperative of fielding competitive college football teams. In Alabama, Gov. George Wallace, a fierce segregationist, clashed with the only man in the state comparable in influence, Bear Bryant, coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide football team. The governor had the money, and so delayed Bryant’s desire to integrate for some years, but Bryant had the people. Sports was more important than segregation.

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