Thursday evening marked the culmination of a history-making series for the Toronto Raptors, and most Canadians would probably agree that this year’s NBA playoffs were one of the most compelling in a long time. The Raptors brought home the 2019 NBA Championships for the first time in franchise history, and the moment the final score was broadcasted, the streets of Toronto — and cities all over Canada — flooded with fans cheering and celebrating. The elation was palpable and the people were electric, with “We the North” chants shouted out well into the night. It was clear that the Raptors did something special for the country.
But as effectively as sports can unify a whole nation to aspire to a common dream, it can just as easily divide — a phenomenon that we can see when taking a closer look at both this year’s NBA playoffs and Liverpool fans’ devotion to one of their top players.
Maintaining relative privilege in the NBA
For years now, the public outrage against perceived bias in officiating has sparked impassioned debates amongst basketball fans, players, and coaches. Most recently, this was apparent after Game 5 of the playoffs, when the NBA conceded that referees missed a crucial shooting foul committed by the Golden State Warriors’ Demarcus Cousins on Toronto Raptors’ Marc Gasol in the last 49 seconds of the game. In a game that ended in a one-point difference, Gasol’s two free throws might have changed the course of the game and clinched the championships for the Raptors a game earlier. Toronto fans recognized this and took to social media to accuse the referees of favouritism.
Perhaps the worst-kept secret of the NBA is that star players are given preferential treatment by officials. The dominating sentiment in the industry is that star players, like Lebron James, have “earned” the benefit of the doubt with close calls, in the same way that Michael Jordan did before them. Star players stand to lose the most with the introduction of a more objective officiating system, which is why many of them have been vocal against calls that don’t favour them.
On “The Bill Simmons Podcast,” Michael Lewis — author of Moneyball, The Blind Side, and The Big Short — remarked of said players, “People in positions of privilege don’t like being refereed fairly.” Privilege, when used this way to refer to mostly black NBA players, seems somewhat unsettling. Many of us are accustomed to thinking about privilege in implicit terms — that is, privilege that is supported by power systems like white supremacy, heteronormativity, and classism. It is the same way we consider heterosexual, white, cisgender, able-bodied men to be privileged.
But the term used here to describe star players’ reactions when calls don’t go in their favour is referring to something known as relative privilege. Relative privilege exists when a member of a marginalized group possesses an intersecting identity that renders them more privileged than other members of that group. For example, star players are used to receiving favourable calls because their elite performance over “role” players grants them a relative privilege.
But that privilege comes at a price.
There is an added layer of complexity when considering that for many young black men, particularly those from generationally impoverished backgrounds, their ticket out of their circumstances is either sport or spectacle. Not only must they be in the slim margin of the population that can break into industries with high barriers to entry, they must be the top players of an already competitive league in order to gain favourable officiating calls. In other words, they must be truly exceptional in order to earn a reputation and standing within the league that begets them the kind of preferential treatment that their white counterparts enjoy in everyday life.
It’s this complicated intersection of identity and privilege that gets lost in the discourse about officiating in the NBA, which frequently paints star players as “whiny” or “petty” for opposing a more equitable officiating standard.
Unintended consequences of excellence in football for visible minorities
In addition to unifying and dividing the masses, professional sports can also leave a lasting impression in our minds — some strong enough to change our perspectives completely.
Take the recent research study by Stanford University, for example, that linked Mohamed Salah’s presence at Liverpool Football Club to a significant decrease in Islamophobia in Merseyside, UK. The study showed an 18.9 percent drop in anti-Muslim hate crimes in the city and a 53 percent decrease in anti-Muslim tweets by Liverpool fans compared to other major Premier League clubs.
A major reason for this is Salah’s openness about his religion. One of Salah’s goal celebrations involves performing sujood, the Islamic act of prostration to God. This demonstration has undoubtedly normalized the faith for many non-Muslims who watch him play. It is a true testament to the fact that when equitable environments exist for people to embrace their whole selves openly, it can ripple out into a more accepting culture overall.
However, there is a shadow side to this positive effect, as well. Players like Salah now have to bear the burden of representation for Muslims everywhere in a way that their white peers are not expected to do for all other white people.
White athletes have the privilege of being individuals — to exist on the field or court without politicization — while athletes of colour must be upstanding as to not reflect poorly on the rest of their race or community. Whether or not he intended it, Salah has been appointed as a representative of Muslim people, of whom his triumphs and transgressions will colour by association.
The high(er) stakes of elite performance
For many athletes of colour, the high stakes of being an elite performer is raised even higher because of their identities. They have an added responsibility to perform exceptionally, whether it’s to maintain the relative privileges of excellence or to represent a whole population of people in a way that transcends sports.
What remains true is that when we tie a player’s virtue to a player’s performance, we are diminishing their humanity in favour of our own entertainment. It is a subtle form of policing that restricts their ability to be themselves in the most fundamental sense — which undercuts what we love about sports in the first place: the players who play them.
Many sports have now wrapped their high-profile games for the season, but as we head into the next round, keeping these perspectives on inclusion and privilege in mind can help transform how we interpret and react to what we see on the court.