Sports·Opinion

Masai Ujiri appears to only be guilty of celebrating while Black

If you needed airtight video evidence that Masai Ujiri was the aggrieved and not the aggressor that night in Oakland, it hit the internet late Tuesday, when Ujiri's legal team, after filing a lawsuit against Alan Strickland, published footage of the incident captured by the officer's body camera.

Legal team of Raptors president published footage of 2019 incident in counterclaim

Toronto Raptors President Masai Ujiri, cente-left, accompanies Kyle Lowry to the court following a physical altercation with a sheriff's deputy at Oracle Arena after the team defeated Golden State to win the 2019 NBA title. (Tony Avelar/The Canadian Press)

This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

It was never about the credential.

Not the shoving match that erupted between team president Masai Ujiri and courtside police officer Alan Strickland moments after Toronto defeated Golden State to win the 2019 NBA Championship, and not the legal wrangling – investigations, dropped charges, lawsuits in all directions – that has dragged on for 14 months since that initial confrontation. If you believe it all unfolded because Ujiri didn't display his ID, you have to decide whether you're willfully ignorant or merely clueless.

But if you needed airtight video evidence that Ujiri was the aggrieved and not the aggressor that night in Oakland, it hit the internet late Tuesday when Ujiri's legal team, after filing a lawsuit against Strickland, published footage of the incident captured by the officer's body camera.

WATCH | New video shows altercation between Raptors president, sheriff's deputy:

New video released by lawyers for Raptors president Masai Ujiri shows him being shoved by a sheriff’s deputy while trying to get onto the court to celebrate the team’s NBA championship last year. The deputy claims Ujiri was the instigator and has sued him for injuries. 2:23

The 15-second clip doesn't show the suit-wearing Ujiri hitting Strickland with both fists, as the police officer would later allege in a $75,000 US lawsuit. And video doesn't show Ujiri leaving Strickland with a string of injuries, including, according to the suit, injuries to his, "head, body … [and] nervous system." Police made similar allegations in an attempt to charge Ujiri with assault last June, and Strickland repeated them in February when he sued Ujiri for damages.

The clip appears to affirm the idea of racial profiling, and that Ujiri had broken an unwritten rule against Celebrating While Black.

And Strickland's claim strains belief.

Ujiri is a basketball mastermind, and helped build a Raptors squad that prevailed against long odds to win the first NBA title in franchise history. But it doesn't take a hoops genius to beat up a uniformed officer in a sold-out arena without the act appearing on security cameras, or attracting attention from the hundreds of smartphone-wielding bystanders.

That takes a magician.

Instead, the video affirms that the dispute unfolded the way Ujiri told us it did. Ujiri grasps his credential in his right hand to show it to Strickland, who greets him with a full power, two-handed shove. Then Strickland pushes Ujiri again. Ujiri pushes back and more courtside security intervenes.

The video should settle any lingering doubts about what actually happened between Ujiri and Strickland, but it raises more questions about why police still support Strickland's version, a tale taller than Celtics centre Tacko Fall. And, crucially, how would this interaction have played out if Ujiri were, say, a beer vendor, and not an NBA executive?

Racial profiling not limited to class

It's chilling to accept that racial profiling transcends class, and that if a police officer can attack a sports industry power broker, then concoct a paper-thin pretext to charge him with a felony, regular folks live with a similar danger and fewer safeguards. It's sobering to acknowledge, as Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment did in its statement supporting Ujiri, that worse outcomes often await unarmed black folks after run-ins with police.

"While Masai has the full backing of Raptors and MLSE as he fights this injustice, we are aware that not all people have similar support and resources," MLSE said in a statement published early Wednesday. "This is a spurious legal action that MLSE, the NBA, and especially Masai should not be facing."

WATCH | Nick Nurse says new video of altercation 'self explanatory':

The Raptors coach responds to new video of Masai Ujiri being shoved by an Alameda County sheriff's deputy. 3:33

In June 2019, the Alameda County Sheriff's Office saw that same footage and judged Ujiri the instigator, then investigated the case before finally dropping it last October without charging Ujiri. If the decision to pursue charges seemed shaky in the moment, it looks scandalous this week, with the video rippling around the internet and the sheriff's office still, somehow, casting Ujiri as the bully.

"We 100 per cent stand by [the] original statement that was released that Mr. Ujiri is the aggressor in this incident," a sheriff's office spokesperson told CP24 on Tuesday.

That Ujiri can counter-sue Strickland, and has a legal team that can publicize his case, attest to his influence and privilege. So what happens to lower-profile Black people who have similar run-ins with aggressive police?

They might become rallying cries.

Eric Garner died in 2014, choked to death by one of a group of cops who confronted him for selling loose cigarettes. His final words, "I can't breathe," soon adorned the t-shirts of NBA players like LeBron James, protesting police killings of unarmed Black citizens.

LeBron James, seen above as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers, wears a t-shirt reading "I Can't Breathe," protesting the death of Eric Garner prior to a game in 2014. (Frank Franklin II/The Associated Press)

Or they could become martyrs.

George Floyd's showdown with Minneapolis police in May started over a counterfeit $20 bill, and ended with officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes, killing the 46-year-old. That death prompted international protests, and triggered a reckoning on race that spanned several industries, helping lead to the NBA painting the words "Black Lives Matter" on courts when its season re-started last month.

And they can become reminders that you might die minding your own business.

Breonna Taylor was asleep in the Louisville home she shared with her boyfriend when police, who had showed up at the wrong address, raided the place to serve a warrant. Her boyfriend, a licensed gun owner, fired at what he thought was a thief. Police, who weren't required to knock on the door or announce themselves, opened fire and killed Taylor, a 26-year-old EMT. WNBA players dedicated the 2020 season to Taylor's memory, and the ongoing campaign for charges against the officers involved. One officer has been fired; none have been arrested.

Ujiri, thankfully, survived his run-in with Strickland and can afford to both defend himself and take the offensive in court.

Meanwhile, Alameda County faces a budget shortfall that could reach $140 million next year. But even as municipal money dried up, and Strickland's body-cam video made clear who shoved whom, the sheriff's office chose to burn taxpayer dollars chasing an assault charge against Ujiri.

Maybe the sheriff's office decided that, from a public relations standpoint, it could afford to support Strickland's bogus story, gambling the white officer's badge and gun would give weight to his words when placed on the scale alongside the account of a Black immigrant who was born in England and raised in Nigeria.

Or maybe the sheriff's office figured it's more costly to concede that Strickland was wrong. That admission might invite questions about why they even hired a man who was rejected by a neighbouring police department because of a 2005 insurance fraud conviction, and why they still value Strickland's word over video that appears definitive.

All those questions deserve probing now that we've established that Ujiri made his ID visible, and that Strickland struck first. We can debate the extent to which race and power and privilege prompted Strickland to lash out at Ujiri instead of simply asking for a better look at his ID.

But let's stop pretending this was ever about the credential.

About the Author

Morgan Campbell

Senior Contributor

Morgan Campbell joins CBC Sports as our first Senior Contributor after 18 standout years at the Toronto Star. In 2004 he won the National Newspaper Award for "Long Shots," a serial narrative about a high school basketball team from Scarborough. Later created, hosted and co-produced "Sportonomics," a weekly video series examining the business of Sport. And he spent his last two years at the Star authoring the Sports Prism initiative, a weekly feature covering the intersection of sports, race, business, politics and culture. Morgan is also a TedX lecturer, and a frequent contributor to several CBC platforms, including the extremely popular and sorely-missed Sports Culture Panel on CBC Radio Q. His work has been featured in the New York Times, the Literary Review of Canada, and the Best Canadian Sports Writing anthology.

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