Masai Ujiri incident demonstrates how not even success and power can protect you from ridiculous racial profiling

This post originally appeared in Obiter Dicta. Photo by Edgar Chaparro on Unsplash.

The night of June 13th, 2019 was supposed to be the greatest night in Masai Ujiri’s professional career. It was the night Ujiri’s Toronto Raptors defeated the Golden State Warriors in Game 6 of the NBA Finals 114-110, to secure the first NBA Championship in franchise history.

In the dying moments of the game at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California, Raptors President Masai Ujiri tried to go on the court to celebrate with the players, coaches and staff he had helped assemble since taking the job in 2013.

Instead, Ujiri was physically prevented from doing so by Alameda County Officer Alan Strickland, and an altercation ensued. Ujiri was eventually permitted onto the Court, but the moment had just been stolen from him by some selfish, bigoted idiot.

It was wishful thinking to believe that Strickland and his disgraceful actions would fade away behind the mass celebrations which engulfed the city of Toronto with their first major sports championship in almost 30 years. However, losers do not simply go away, they try their hardest to bring down winners with them.

Immediately following the Finals, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office announced it would undergo an investigation and recommend a misdemeanour charge of battery against Ujiri. Strickland claimed to have suffered a “serious concussion” from his “unprovoked attack”. 

Strickland originally stated that he had not permitted Ujiri onto the court because he had not displayed the proper credentials. However, this was met with great skepticism. Even in the slight chance that Ujiri did not show his credentials, how would the President of one of the most high-profile teams in the NBA, whose team was competing in the Finals, not be recognized? All officers assigned to provide security for the Finals would have been briefed on who Ujiri was. So how did Strickland not know who he was? 

This is because it was never about Ujiri’s credentials, it was about his race.

Later that fall, the Alameda County District Attorney agreed to drop the criminal charges against Ujiri. Their office had to determine as a whole whether there was a reasonable chance of proving Ujiri “made wilful and unlawful use of force or violence against someone else” under the California Penal Code. They managed to quickly determine that this was not the case. 

The DA’s office also had access to Oracle Arena security footage and Strickland’s body camera footage from the night of the incident, arguably the most valuable piece of evidence in this case. The fact they were willing to drop the charges so quickly demonstrates that there wasn’t much of a case. However, even that doesn’t stop a cockroach like Alan Strickland. 

In February, Strickland decided he wanted to extend the only moment of relevance he will ever have in his life by pursuing the case in civil court. He retained counsel David Mastagni, who filed a claim against Ujiri, MLSE and the NBA which was littered with malicious accusations and more spelling errors than a 1st Grade English class. It was then that Ujiri and his team decided enough was enough. They filed a countersuit against Strickland and released the body cam footage to the public in an effort to hammer home how ludicrous Strickland’s claim was and unequivocally prove Ujiri’s innocence. 

The video evidence shows Ujiri’s contention that he acted out of self-defence to be true and explains why the DA dropped the criminal charges. When he presented his credentials to gain access to the court, Strickland, completely unprovoked, shoved Ujiri back. After Ujiri demanded to be allowed on the court and again showed his pass, Strickland shoved him again in a threatening manner. With a real perceived fear of harm and no reasonable chance to retreat, Ujiri fought back in self-defence so that he could celebrate on the court with his players, coaches and staff. Since the video was published, figures across the NBA including Adam Silver, Doc Rivers and Warriors President Rick Welts have voiced their support for Ujiri

Unsurprisingly however, Strickland and Mastagni have used every excuse in the book to try and cover up his clearly racist and prejudiced actions. First, he tried to catch Ujiri on a technicality that he presented a different security pass. This was proven false by the NBA’s vice-president and chief security officer. He then claimed that Ujiri is just taking advantage of “pervasive anti-law enforcement prejudices” and using the video in an attempt to “mislead the media and the public and taint the jury pool”.

Their latest embarrassing attempt occurred in a motion filed to dismiss Ujiri’s counterclaim. They argued that Ujiri, the President of the team that just won the NBA title, needed to be stopped because “he posed the same threat as the terrorists who murdered eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games.” To compare a man merely trying to celebrate with his team to a terrorist is truly appalling, and an all-time low which I never thought I would see another lawyer sink to.

Based on the evidence which has been provided, Masai Ujiri won’t have to pay Strickland a dime, and he should not even think about settling, as the disgusting and abhorrent behaviour of Strickland and his lawyer have become blatantly obvious to everyone. Because Ujiri only pushed back in self-defence and because Alameda County knows it is in the wrong here, it has to paint Ujiri in a negative light as violent, aggressive and disobedient. Strickland’s hastily-made efforts to avoid all consequences of his assault of Ujiri by accusing him as the aggressor because of the colour of his skin is disgusting. It is reassuring to know his continued attempts to double-down on this racist belief will lead him nowhere.

But the fact this issue has yet to be quashed and is still dragging on a year and a half later is what might be most frustrating. The correct outcome will happen here, but only because this incident happened to Masai Ujiri, one of the most prominent and powerful figures in the NBA and Toronto sports. This case is a large reason why the Raptors have been one of the NBA’s leaders in raising awareness for the social injustices faced by the black community. 

Masai Ujiri will be victorious here, as he is with almost every aspect of his life. But how often does another Alan Strickland get away with similar actions, and how much more needs to happen before that changes? 

Ujiri said it best this summer: “I’m the President of an NBA team, I had access to resources that ensured I could demand and fight for my justice. So many of my brothers and sisters haven’t had, don’t have, and won’t have the same access to resources that assured my justice. And that’s why Black Lives Matter.”

Written by Nolan Cattell, Co-President of the Osgoode Entertainment and Sports Law Association