The team partnered with Nike to design the hijabs — head coverings worn by some Muslim women — and unveiled them on Twitter, saying the athletic apparel was “inspired by those brave enough to change the game”.
The Raptors, which are owned by Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, claimed to be the first team in the National Basketball Association to offer an athletic hijab.
Jerry Ferguson, the company’s senior marketing director, told the Associated Press that the idea was inspired by the Hijabi Ballers, a local organisation that promotes Muslim women in sports.
“They really wanted to involve local Muslim female athletes,” Amreen Kadwa, the group’s founder said. “There was a genuine partnership and interest to highlight this group, making it authentic to the Muslim community.”
Ms Kadwa, who founded the group two years ago, said 10 to 20 women regularly show up to weekly gatherings.
“It’s been received positively among Muslim females and Raptors fans,” she said of the new apparel. “Toronto is a great multicultural city to introduce something like this.”
More than 400,000 Muslims live in the Toronto area, according to national data from 2011, the most recent available.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, the largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organisation in the United States, praised the new hijabs.
“It sends a powerful message of inclusion to the Muslim community,” Ibrahim Hooper, the group’s national communications director, said. “I think the Raptors deserve to be congratulated for taking a step that other teams have yet to make.”
Norm O’Reilly, director of the International Institute for Sport Business and Leadership at the University of Guelph near Toronto, said the marketing decision was a big step but not a surprising one.
He said it reminded him of when the National Football League started marketing clothing for women.
“When that initially happened, there was a lot of public press and the campaign was scrutinised, but now it’s common practice,” he said.
“It takes a first step to push for acceptance in a gender, race or cultural issue, but it usually ends up working out in the end.”
He said that it was possible the organisation would lose fans over the branded hijabs, but that the team must have determined the benefits outweighed the risk.
Some critics on social media called hijabs a symbol of oppression.
Mr O’Reilly compared the move to the time Nike used Colin Kaepernick, the divisive quarterback who knelt during national anthems in protest of police brutality and social injustice, as the face of its marketing campaign.
“From a marketing perspective, those who don’t embrace change and humanity tend to not have things work out as well in the longer run,” he said.
“It’s the natural progression. The NBA is global and the Raptors have a global audience.”
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Irving J Rein, a professor of communications studies at Northwestern University, said that some people would find the branded hijabs empowering and others would find them offensive, but that it was hard to say how many people might stop watching the Raptors because of them.
“Athletes are really speaking out about controversial topics in ways that they’ve not spoken out before,” he said, citing Kaepernick and LeBron James.
“We’re living in a space that we don’t understand very well and the ability to predict is very difficult.”
The New York Times