Expecting more from our favorite teams

by Nasir Husain

Sports fandom is usually an unconditional relationship. But when a team like the Raptors fails to live up to its stated values and address issues like domestic abuse head on, it’s time for conditions.

I am a diehard fan of my hometown Toronto Raptors.

It’s tough to quantify the intensity of my fandom, but here are a few data points to give you a sense: I watch 90 percent of games live and in full; whether I’ve watched the game or not, I will always re-watch the highlights (something my partner finds very confusing); I listen religiously to William Lou’s “Raptors Over Everything” post-game reaction podcasts, even after preseason games; I own six jerseys (Vince, DeMar, CoJo, Pascal, Kawhi, and the new OVO-branded practice joint); I’ve been on the season ticket wait list for four years despite the fact that I don’t live in Toronto; I got Brooklyn Nets season tickets last year, in no small part because it would allow me to see the Raptors when they visited my adopted home. I’m not on that Nav Bhatia level, but I’m a pretty dedicated fan.

I’m also a very emotional fan, often pathetically so, my moods fluctuating dramatically with the successes and failures of the team. The 2018 sweep at the hands of the Cavs — the “LeBronto” series — left me near-catatonic for weeks. The 2019 championship was probably the emotional high of my life, a feeling of pure ecstasy not experienced before or since. And in 2020, a year marred by so much death and disruption, maybe my most visceral moment of sadness was when the Raptors fell to the Celtics in Game 7 of the second round of the bizarre and beautiful Bubble Playoffs.

Does this mean I am a 30-year-old man-child with significant room for emotional growth? Yes, definitely. But, am I alone in my deep-feeling fandom? No, I don’t think so. That’s the power of sports, after all. Like so many fans, I displace my emotions onto my teams. It’s what makes victories so ecstatic, defeats so agonizing — the game is not so much a distraction as a proxy, a vessel to hold all of the hopes and anxieties that might otherwise overwhelm.

And this is why — in early January 2021, just weeks into a very strange NBA season — I am feeling adrift. My vessel has sprung a leak. It’s taking on water. It may no longer be seaworthy. My favorite team employs an alleged domestic abuser, and I don’t know what to do about it.

Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Here’s what we know: Terence Davis, a 23-year-old guard for the Raptors, was arrested in New York City in October and charged with assault, harassment, and endangering the welfare of a child. The NYPD statement on the incident was characteristically brusque: “On Tuesday, October 27, 2020, at approximately 2030 hours, the victim stated she went to visit her boyfriend in the Beekman Hotel located at 3 Mitchell Place. The two got into a verbal dispute and the subject hit the victim in the face, and then grabbed and broke the victim’s phone.”

The charging document has more details, with the victim — Davis’ girlfriend — alleging that she was hit in the face “with a closed fist multiple times, causing swelling to her left eye and substantial pain.” Also present was the victim’s one-year-old son, who was allegedly knocked to the ground in the scuffle, hence the charge for endangering the welfare of a child. After his arrest and arraignment, Davis was released on his own recognizance, with a court date set for December. He has denied the allegations and entered a plea of not guilty.

Evidence suggests that the vast majority of domestic violence (DV) allegations are true. And the allegations against Davis suggest an abundance of physical evidence, namely a shattered cell phone and the victim’s swollen left eye. As a researcher and advocate, I’ve worked with police and prosecutors on the implementation of laws banning gun possession for domestic abusers, and my experience has been that they’re reluctant to arrest and/or charge somebody for DV unless the evidence is pretty solid. The truth is that police and prosecutors tend to give alleged domestic abusers a lot of rope. According to the FBI, prosecutors file charges in only 30 percent of DV cases.

All of this leads me to believe that the allegations against Davis are true, or at least reflect a partial account of something that really happened. Sure, there are two sides to every story, and Davis (or more likely his lawyer) will get to tell his side of it. But there are also fundamental truths that should be objectively knowable — like whether it was Davis’ fist that caused the victim’s eye to swell.

Davis deserves the same presumption of innocence under the law we all do. Legally, he is innocent, unless proven guilty. Even if proven guilty, I wouldn’t support the punishment outlined by New York law: misdemeanor assault is punishable by up to a year in prison, and possibly more in combination with the other charges. I won’t claim to know the most effective remedy in DV cases, but I would favor some combination of restorative justice and financial compensation to the victim, as opposed to incarceration.

But I’m not primarily interested in this case as a matter of criminal justice. My interest is that of the sports fan: selfish, primitive, emotionally fraught. There are nearly 90,000 DV complaints in NYC each year, and this is the only one I’ve tracked. I was only aware of it because I’m frequently refreshing TSN, ESPN, and NBA Twitter during the offseason. And, as a sports fan, I had only one reaction, which I felt immediately as a knot in my stomach when I saw the news break: I don’t want this guy on my team.

Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The Raptors’ handling of the Davis situation has been unsatisfying, to say the least. When news of the charges broke, the Raptors released a brief statement that passed the buck to the league: “Incidents of this kind are addressed and managed by the League through the Joint NBA-NBPA Policy on Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, and Child Abuse.” (More on this Joint Policy later.)

Then, in late November, with Davis’ criminal case still pending, the Raptors guaranteed the second year of his contract for $1.5 million. NBA analysts who I trust to know a lot more about the collective bargaining agreement than I do have laid out why the Raptors had little choice in doing this. But there was no comment from the team on this move, no insight given into what it meant, or didn’t mean.

And then, seemingly just as it had begun, the whirlwind NBA offseason was over, and the Raptors were off to Tampa Bay for training camp, Terence Davis in tow. Finally, via the mandatory media availabilities that come with the start of every season, we got some answers from the team’s top brass.

Let me pause here to explain another specific, somewhat unusual aspect of my Raptors fandom. As much as I love the players on the team, I feel just as connected to management, specifically the President of Basketball Operations, Masai Ujiri. In Toronto, Masai is beloved in a way that few, if any, sports executives are. Part of this is tied to his exceptional performance: finding value in the draft, never losing a trade, and delivering the city’s first title since the Blue Jays in 1993. But there are a handful of other top-flight NBA execs — like Pat Riley in Miami, or Danny Ainge in Boston — with comparable credentials.

What sets Masai apart is the impact of his leadership beyond winning: building one of the most diverse front offices in the league; using basketball as a tool for global development through his Giants of Africa nonprofit, and using his voice in the fight for racial justice after being violently grabbed and shoved by an Alameda County cop on the night he became an NBA champion. Like no other North American sports executive, Masai has come to occupy a role that compellingly blurs the line between sportsman and statesman. And he did it in Toronto! He saw something in the city — its energy, its vibrancy, its international character — and he represented it on the biggest stage, brimming with savvy, charisma, and integrity.

Masai has also meant a lot to me personally. Unknowingly, through the power of his words and example, he’s helped me make some big decisions. In 2018, when I quit a going-nowhere job to start my own business, it was with Masai’s words ringing in my ears. “Honestly, we have done something, and the definition of insanity is doing something over and over again [when you know it doesn’t work],” he said, justifying his overhaul of the team that summer after two straight playoff sweeps. He went all in, replacing coach Dwayne Casey with Nick Nurse, and trading franchise cornerstone DeMar DeRozan for one year of Kawhi Leonard. It was a beacon for me: as a fan tired of losing, and as a professional coming to terms with the ceiling of my own situation. Masai leaped, and I did too. And now, as a leader of my own very small organization, I continue to hold Masai as an example. He is literally on my mood board for the type of leader I want to be, and the type of workplace culture I strive to build every day.

So I was disappointed to hear Masai’s Media Day comments on the Davis situation. Speaking to reporters via Zoom, Masai explained:

“We don’t condone anything that resembles what was alleged to have happened. We would not do that in our organization. What we have is a certain amount of information where we have to wait until the NBA is done with the investigation. We feel comfortable. I’ll say this: We’ve done as much due diligence [as we can] in talking to Terence, in talking to our organization. We went as far as even talking to all the women in our organization and getting their point of view from this. This is very important for us because we don’t want to say one thing and go do another thing. We also have to respect the NBA and the players’ association and what they’re trying to do, and what they have to do with this. He’s with the team now. We wait until this decision or investigation or more information is had.”

This comment was only marginally more informative than the team’s original press release, and the parts of it meant to reassure did the exact opposite. Nothing about this situation should “feel comfortable”. Either Davis assaulted a woman in front of her infant son, or he was falsely arrested and charged for doing so. Whatever the truth is, the only appropriate way to feel about it is deeply uncomfortable.

And then there was the mention of the team’s “due diligence”, which, according to Masai, consisted entirely of internal conversations. Shouldn’t it have also involved speaking to the NYPD, speaking to the DA’s office, speaking to potential witnesses at the Beekman Hotel, speaking to the victim? Maybe we can assume that it did, that a multi-billion dollar organization like the Raptors would spare no expense in investigating a potentially reputation-crippling incident like this. Imagine if a Ray Rice-like video were to emerge, proving the allegations against Davis with sickening and irrefutable clarity. Masai and the Raptors would look just as bad as Roger Goodell did — worse, probably, because nobody expected much from Goodell in the first place.

So maybe we can assume that the Raptors, aware of this downside risk, are only keeping Davis around because they conducted an extensive investigation that pointed to his likely innocence. But we shouldn’t have to assume. If there was a more robust investigation done, Raptors management should have laid it out in detail. That is how you show you take DV seriously: by investigating allegations to the fullest extent possible, and by being transparent about the process and outcome of the investigation.

Especially disappointing was the touting of women’s roles in the team’s “due diligence”: “We went as far as even talking to all the women in our organization…” The perspective of any individual within the Raptors organization is irrelevant when it comes to the question of Davis’ guilt. Unless they happened to be there, how would any Raptors employee know what went on in that hotel?

In the absence of an informational value, this exercise seems to have been more about providing cover: What we’re doing here is okay because we asked the women who work for us and they said it’s okay. This is akin to the “some of my best friends are Black” defense to charges of racism, except the human shields, in this case, are not friends; they are employees, paid by the Raptors and, ultimately, reporting to Masai Ujiri. The conflicts of interest are obvious. There was also the implication that women, though consulted on the Davis matter, are not routinely involved in organizational decision making: “we went as far as even talking to all the women…” Masai seems to think this tactic worthy of praise, emblematic of an organizational commitment to diversity and gender equity. In reality, it demonstrates just how far the Raptors still have to go.

Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images

A couple of things have happened since I started writing this.

On the afternoon of Dec. 11, 2020, Terence Davis had his first court date since being arraigned. It was held over video-conference, as almost all meetings are these days. Sandra Musumeci, Davis’ lawyer, requested that the case be dismissed, claiming she had provided “exculpatory material” to the DA’s office. A new court date was set for Dec. 23, to give the prosecution time to review this information.

Then, on Dec. 23, Musumeci and Manhattan assistant district attorney Mellisa Reilly appeared in virtual court again and suggested that a plea deal was forthcoming. “[Musumeci] and I have been talking extensively about an offer that may resolve the case,” Reilly said, “and we’re very hopeful that we’ll be able to resolve the case at the next adjournment [in a few weeks].” We didn’t learn anything about the type of “exculpatory material” Musumeci had provided, but it obviously wasn’t enough for an outright dismissal. So, we wait again, for the most likely resolution of any criminal case in the US: a guilty plea. Neither hearing had any bearing on Davis’ status with the Raptors or the NBA. As the legal process extends into the NBA season, Davis will remain an active member of the team I love.

And so, on Dec. 23, 2020, Davis was in uniform as the Raptors took the floor for their first regular-season game in Tampa Bay. My experience as a fan played out just as I’d feared: it was strange to see him there, unsettling. He only played three minutes, but I kept thinking about the case, the brutality of what was alleged. I wondered what the other players and coaches thought, whether it was on their minds at all, whether they’d had conversations with each other or with their families about it. It was a good game and I enjoyed seeing the team again, but the feeling wasn’t the same. When the Raptors lost — their first season-opening loss in eight years — I was more apathetic than annoyed. The bond I had with the team had shifted, and I knew this would not be a season where I celebrated wins and mourned losses with my whole heart. There was a shadow over all of it. Seeing Davis there on the court, it was impossible not to imagine just how much force could be behind one of his closed fists.

Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

I work as a public policy researcher, and I’ve found that illustrating problems is a lot easier than actually solving them. So, instead of describing my predicament and throwing my hands in the air, I’ve tried to come up with some concrete recommendations. As a Raptors and NBA mega fan, what would I have the team and league do?

1. Place Terence Davis on paid administrative leave until the investigation is complete

This feels like a fairly obvious step. If the team wants to show they take the charges seriously while also deferring to legal procedure and the league’s investigation, then put Davis on paid administrative leave until those processes are complete. It’s unclear to me whether the Raptors have the ability to do this unilaterally, but the league certainly does, per the 2017 Joint NBA-NBPA Policy on Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, and Child Abuse: “While an investigation is pending, the Commissioner may at any time place the player on administrative leave with pay for a reasonable period of time.”

While this is the right thing to do and there is a clear mechanism by which to do it, there is no recent precedent for the NBA applying this power. Take the case of Rodions Kurucs, a forward for the Brooklyn Nets who was arrested and arraigned for allegedly choking his girlfriend in June 2019. Like Davis, Kurucs was not placed on administrative leave. More than a year after the alleged incident, his criminal case remains unresolved (it’s now indefinitely on hold due to the pandemic), and he remains a player on the Nets. This is typical of the NBA’s response to DV: claim to be investigating, but take no action until the courts do. In the recent DV cases involving NBA players — Davis (2020), Kurucs (2019), DeMarcus Cousins (2019), Jabari Bird (2018) — none involved the NBA placing the player on paid administrative leave while criminal charges and league investigations were pending. What would it take for the NBA to use this power? How much worse would the allegations have to be?

Setting a precedent starts with one decision. If the NBA placed Davis on leave, then a new precedent would be set: players arrested and charged on reasonable suspicion of DV won’t play until criminal charges and/or league investigations are resolved.

2. Investigate the allegations comprehensively and issue proportionate penalties, independent of the criminal justice system

What about these investigations that the team and league are supposedly conducting?

The team’s “due diligence”, as outlined by Masai, sounds woefully inadequate. NBA teams had average revenues of nearly $300 million in 2019; if uncovering the truth is a priority, the resources are there. Hire a private investigator or two. Have them speak to people outside the team who could have material evidence: police, prosecutors, potential witnesses. Hire a DV expert to consult on the investigation. Maybe the Raptors did these things, but we fans would never know it, and that is a problem.

The same goes for the league, whose investigation the Raptors have now deferred to. All we know about league investigations comes from the Joint NBA-NBPA Policy: “The NBA’s investigation may include the use of third party resources including, but not limited to, outside legal counsel, outside investigators, or other individuals with relevant experience or expertise.” I wish this part of the policy was more detailed and directive (think “must” not “may”); in an ideal world, it would be an independent third party tasked with running the investigation. Even still, under the current policy, I would hope that the NBA is bringing all of these “third party resources” to bear in the Davis case.

If a comprehensive investigation reveals wrongdoing, both the team and the league should use their authority to issue appropriate sanctions. These disciplinary measures do not require a criminal conviction. For example, the Miami Heat suspended Dion Waiters 10 games in 2019 for eating a weed gummy and having a panic attack on the team plane, calling it “conduct detrimental to the team”. Back in 2013, the Boston Celtics suspended Jared Sullinger for his involvement in a DV incident, even though Sullinger’s criminal charges were dismissed. Conviction or not, team president Danny Ainge felt there was enough evidence to determine that Sullinger had “failed to meet the high expectations we have for all Celtics employees.” Ainge had the right idea here, a fair and worthy application of “conduct detrimental to the team”. But the penalty was the bare minimum: Sullinger sat for one game. No team suspensions have been imposed on Davis, Kurucs, Cousins, or Bird.

The league has suspended players for DV too, but it happens rarely and seems to require a criminal conviction. Ron Artest, who already had a checkered disciplinary history with the league, was suspended seven games in 2007 after pleading no contest to a misdemeanor DV charge. Darren Collison was suspended eight games in 2016 after pleading guilty to misdemeanor domestic battery. The most severe DV suspension I could find was given to Jeffery Taylor, who got 24 games in 2014 after pleading guilty to misdemeanor domestic assault and malicious destruction of property. I’m not sure why Taylor’s suspension was so comparatively long, but I wonder if it had something to do with his being “belligerent and uncooperative” with arresting officers.

These examples illustrate a lack of consistency in disciplinary decisions and a disturbing sense of proportionality. There is no world in which recreational drug use, however disruptive, should be treated more harshly than DV. The NBA and its teams need to act accordingly.

3. Release reports detailing the process, findings, and outcomes of any team and/or league investigations

The best way to earn trust on this issue is to be transparent, to document your process and share it with the public. Unfortunately, the NBA tends to take the opposite approach: investigations occur in a black box; public statements are rare and frustratingly opaque, and decisions are left unexplained. While this strategy may effectively veil the problem, it doesn’t solve anything.

Many large organizations will have employees who perpetrate domestic violence; few will have the investigative resources and reach of the NBA. The NBA and its teams should document their DV investigations, clearly laying out the steps taken, the parties consulted, the information gleaned, and the rationale behind whatever decision is ultimately reached. This would help other teams (or even other companies in different industries) that may need to investigate similar allegations in the future. Eventually, a protocol or playbook could be developed, compiling the investigative tactics that yielded results. In this way, the NBA could become a leader in addressing DV allegations against its employees, rather than just another sports league fumbling the issue. For fans like me, troubled by the handling of recent cases, a transparent process could provide assurance that the league is taking DV seriously. For fans unaware of these cases, more documentation and coverage could prompt difficult but necessary conversations.

In researching this piece, I tracked down information on past cases using media stories, Wikipedia pages listing NBA suspensions, and odd fan-created websites like NBACrimeLibrary.com (“Complete database of all NBA arrests”). This should not be necessary. The NBA should maintain its own centralized, publicly available database of investigations and disciplinary decisions. (The US Center for SafeSport, an organization focused on addressing child abuse in sport, runs a disciplinary database that could serve as a partial model here.) This would allow the league, the players union, and those who follow the game to track the prevalence of various infractions over time and to easily compare penalties imposed from case to case. While greater visibility doesn’t necessarily guarantee fairness, it couldn’t hurt. Maybe seeing the Waiters’ 10-game suspension (for weed) right below the Collison eight-game suspension (for DV) would help force a healthy reckoning with the NBA’s hierarchy of wrongdoing, and foster a more proportionate sense of justice.

Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

With everything going on in the world, I know I shouldn’t look to pro basketball for moral clarity. I know that. But at the same time, I feel I need it more than ever. Compared to the other North American professional sports, basketball has always been at the forefront of social and political activism. The phrase “bigger than basketball” is often tossed around in player interviews, but it’s not just a cliché: think of Bill Russell in the 1963 March on Washington, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar boycotting the 1968 Olympics, or LeBron James building the I Promise school in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. This activist streak has been alive and well in 2020, with the league’s embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement, the players’ strike after the shooting of Jacob Blake, and the use of NBA arenas as voting centers (including in cities that truly swung the election like Atlanta, Detroit, and Phoenix). In addition to providing awe-inspiring entertainment, the NBA has been a powerful force for social good. Even though my relationship with the Raptors feels frayed, I will be watching the league this season with rapt attention and deep admiration.

But this doesn’t mean we fans should be complacent. We should continue to expect more from the league, teams, and players we love, especially on issues that have gone largely ignored. The NBA’s current strategy on DV relies on the apathy and forgetfulness of its consumers: If we don’t say anything, eventually this will blow over. Our responsibility as fans and as citizens is to prevent this from happening, to serve as pesky reminders of a persistent problem, and to call out our heroes when they fail to meet it head-on.

As I watched the Raptors lose their eighth game of the season, capping off their worst start in ten years, I was struck again by what I didn’t feel. I didn’t feel that old outrage — that simple, pure, cathartic feeling of yelling at the TV as your team blows a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter. I didn’t feel that irrational sadness — when a bad loss, like a psychic gut punch, brings you to your knees. I miss those feelings. I miss loving my hometown team without caveats or reservations. But there is no denying the reality — when it came time to address domestic violence, the Raptors exhibited the same blind spots, biases, and blunders as the rest of the league. It won’t be easy to come back from. It shouldn’t be. But, in sports and in life, there is always the possibility of redemption: it’s never too late to do the next right thing.

Nasir is a public policy researcher and writer from Toronto.

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