The Toronto Raptors are making a fashion statement for Black lives

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By now, you’ve seen not only the Toronto Raptors’ Black Lives Matter bus, the message written across their step and press conferences backdrops, but you’ve seen them wear various messages on their chest, too.

From the NBA restart bubble in Orlando and beyond, the Raptors have chosen to make human rights statements while making fashion statements. The buzz created has been twofold — how are they getting all of this new gear so quickly, and where can the public get it? Well, with a collection released at Real Sports, fans and the general public can now wear the same gear and send the same message the players have for months.

Not only does the collection coincide with Black History Month, but the proceeds will also go to Black charities and community efforts. Similar to when Nick Nurse teamed up with local artist Nadia Lloyd to support her Black Lives Matter masks, the organization has once again taken a similar approach to meet the community where they are.

In concert with local artists Mark Stoddart and Adeyemi Adegbesan, the team created a line of apparel that all can get behind and support.

On Feb. 17, the Raptors launched the capsule collection online for fans to purchase — 100 per cent of the proceeds will support local organizations and not-for-profits chosen by the artists.

I spoke to John Wiggins, vice president, organizational culture and inclusion for the Raptors, about how it came together, why it came together and what’s next.

Sportsnet: How did the shirts start from something that was team issue and evolve to what it has become?

John Wiggins: It started back in June, and it starts with our director of production, Shawna Morrison, wanting to work with the players on how they make a statement in the bubble.

The bubble was great. We showed up. And then what? How do you have the conversation continue in the bubble, which is what the NBA players say they wanted to do? So, why not wear it on our chest and have some apparel. So, in collaboration with the players, Stanley Johnson was involved, Fred VanVleet was involved, at the time Serge Ibaka was involved.

We connected with a few local Toronto artists — Mark Stoddart and Adeyemi Adegbesean — we wanted to show love to, and with the input of the players, we came up with stuff to keep the conversation around racial injustice and Black Lives Matter.

And it got a great resounding response, especially as we showed the guys walking into the game and after the game and off the busses in the gear. And the public was immediately saying, ‘How can I get my hands on this?’

So, we went back to Mark and Adeyemi and said, ‘If you guys have some programs or some charities that you would want to see funded based on your contribution to this work, what would those be? And let’s take this to retail and put that out there for the public, and let all the proceeds go to these charities and foundations in the Toronto community that support Black initiatives and anti-racism.’

If it’s $500 or $500,000, at least we’re doing something and that it’s going to have an impact in these programs. But it also gives people an opportunity to support, and I think that’s our platform as the Raptors, where we’re showing people what they can do when a lot of people said, ‘I don’t know what I can do.’

SN: How did how do you choose those specific artists?

Wiggins: It was based on the artwork they do that was already in the social justice movement.

It wasn’t just, you’re an artist, but you’re an artist that has already been vocal and has already been outspoken with respect to social justice and Black empowerment, Black excellence. You want to highlight people that are already doing the work and just give them their just due and their recognition.

SN: Logistically and bureaucratically, how’d you get it done considering the NBA has a Nike deal and MLSE has a deal with the Peace Collective?

Wiggins: Like you said, it’s bureaucratic and there’s a lot of red tape. What I do like is that we’re already positioned, which is why the apparel’s in collaboration with Peace Collective and anyone who knows Collective knows that the whole foundation of their apparel and their clothing company is with regards to kind of social justice and community responsibility.

And the more we looked at the community work that they do and the messaging around not just in Canada but everything from LGBTQ to gender equality, they had an involvement in it. So, already being licensed through the NBA, there was a perfect fit for us there. We had to carry the mantle in terms of things like putting Black Lives Matter on the shirt and the NBA being comfortable with that. And we had to engage the NBA Social Justice Task Force to get permission to do it.

No other team had done it yet, but when they understood that this wasn’t commercial retail proceeds that we were trying to garner, it was all going to charity, then that made it a simple conversation and they agreed to it.

SN: Now it’s not a thing to see an NBA shirt with ‘Black Lives Matter’ on it. Do you think what you guys were doing early in the bubble helped to move them in that direction?

Wiggins: Absolutely. Give credit to the guys when they first said they wanted to do more than just talk about it, and that’s what they did. And we’ve been at the forefront of this. And I’m proud to say that it actually motivates my efforts to make sure we stay at the forefront.

We also heard it from other NBA teams when it was the bus, when it was the ‘because of you’ campaign for Mr. Embry and his recognition for social activism and civil rights. You see everything that he speaks to and goes through. We know we’re leading it and we know other teams are taking our cue.

SN: The shirt that I love is the one that states, ‘I am human.’ What I love about that is it’s in the same text and style as a lot of the other Raptors gear, but it just simply states obviously something that you can’t refute. People want to debate Black Lives Matter and what it means or if it should be said. But there is no debate on ‘I’m a human’ — it is literally a fact. What has the reaction to that one been?

Wiggins: It’s interesting how things come together. That was first used during the Civil Rights Movement — the activists had signs over their shoulders that said, ‘I am a man.’ And it’s unfortunate you got to look at those statements and really let it resonate with you that people actually need to see that to be recognized.

I think we’ve evolved now into 2021 — where we’re not just talking about men, we’re talking about everyone. And that’s where I am. Masai is speaking about humanity. And I think that’s what this just comes down to.

Everybody is human. That’s the profound message of that shirt in particular. I think ‘Black Lives Matter’ is a rallying cry. Now, saying something like ‘Rising Power’ is asking everyone to stand up. But ‘I am human’ is really just to understand how basic this conversation is starting from. And that’s probably where the conversation needs to start sometimes. Forget if you understand all the troubles, that you understand all the barriers, if you understand all the of the hardship that different groups go through — you simply understand that we’re all human.

And if I’ve got to say that to you in a very direct way by saying ‘I am human,’ I think that it is starting to resonate with a lot of people because a lot of people relate to that. They might not feel comfortable with a big black fist on their chest. They might not feel comfortable.

And we found that a lot of allies, a lot of people who are white and privileged, who aren’t necessarily comfortable wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt, do understand that they get to support this movement and they get to support these initiatives by saying ‘I am human,’ because it’s true.

SN: The tweet from the Toronto Maple Leafs wearing the Black Lives Matter shirts went viral both for positive and negative reasons. What can some of your other brethren in sport and specifically in Canada do to follow your lead? Is there a one-size-fits-all approach or is there different ways that they can kind of embody the spirit of what you’re doing?

Wiggins: Take the same approach that we take, do what is genuine for your space, your heart, your position. We’re definitely leading the charge, but we have plenty to learn when it comes to LGBTQ, Indigenous community and rights, even the recent issue with Asian discrimination.

So, anything we’re going to do is going to be genuine and it is a cause for pause. And the second step is education, and educate yourself on the issue and what’s happening. And I think that helps formulate your passion and your sentiment around what you would do. So, definitely not a one-size-fits-all approach for anyone. I think I’ve had great conversations almost weekly with Kyle Dubas around how his players need to be informed.

I think then inherently your actions will start to present themselves.

And again, you understand why you wear a shirt. You understand why you should go and support a local Black business. You understand why you should consider your bias when speaking to women, and the list goes on. So, the approach for me is to educate and be aware, because everything doesn’t have to be a massive undertaking or an entire campaign. We can change the world in small increments as well.

SN: What is it about fashion specifically that makes statements like this not just palatable but really popular?

Wiggins: Everyone has a platform, big or small, Instagram account, whether it’s your family room, whether it’s your press conference that you’re sitting in.

I think fashion has always made statements, whether it’s fashion shows, whether it’s people like Kanye, whether its designers, fashion has always been used to make a statement.

And so now you merge the two in that our athletes and our staff and our coaches know that they want to say something, that they’re responsible in many respects for saying something. This is a way that they can do it, without hosting a meeting or standing up on a soapbox. This is a very comfortable way for them to do it because the camera’s going to be put on them. They’re very much aware of that. They’re trained on that from a very early stage in their career that what they do is recognized by millions.

The minute you flip the switch back and say, I’m going to do something that will be recognized by millions, I think that is their power. And I think that’s what’s happening. And they understand that it is a medium in which they can get their message out and I encourage them to keep doing it.

SN: So, what’s next?

Wiggins: If this is a successful platform that our fan base and our communities can engage with, we can use this platform for many other initiatives. International Women’s Day is approaching, and Gender Equity Month is approaching, Pride Month is approaching, Indigenous Month is approaching.

I think there’s lots of issues in the world that we can start to really put some focus on. And that was my commitment when I got hired. We’re going to use our platform and our resources to help these communities and to help these people and bring awareness. And this is an action that we can do that helps raise money. And it gives people the opportunity to say, ‘I associate with that group’ or ‘I am passionate about that cause and here’s how I’d like to show my support.’

This now becomes an ongoing platform for multiple social justice and community initiatives that we can use. For me, that’s what’s next is we’re showing the proof of how our fanbase is reacting to this and we can expand it.