We The North: The Toronto Raptors as Religion
By Abygayle Norris
As stated by Price, “for tens of millions of devoted fans throughout the country, sports constitute a popular form of religion by shaping their world and sustaining their ways of engaging in it” (196). Torontonians are religiously devoted to their sports teams, and their allegiance shapes their everyday lives and ways in which they engage with the world. Whether it be the Maple Leafs, the Blue Jays, or the Raptors the teams’ fans congregate around the team and worship them.
The Toronto Raptors will be examined in this post, as the season has just gone underway and it is the only NBA team in Canada — as such, it is considered to be Canada’s basketball team. Hockey fans have the Canadiens in Montreal or the Oilers in Edmonton (to name a few), but there is only one basketball team that the country stands by and supports, brought together by the popular mantra “We the North.”
“We the North” is the mantra that brings the nation together under a united premise of defending our court and representing Canada’s team. The term inspires pride and nationality in Raptors fans, evoking “the kind of devotion that often is described in terms of religious dedication or intensity” (Price 205). Regardless of how well the team is playing (or how poorly the team is playing), fans stick by the team with promises of doing better next time and improving despite heartbreaking failures.
When the Raptors were devastatingly swept last season in the playoffs by the Washington Wizards, fans did not turn their backs on their beloved team. Instead they stood by them, with promises of returning next season stronger and better, and never questioning the team or the management’s abilities. Their devotion never swayed and their faith in the team never dissipated. Their belief in the Raptors is like belief in religion — never swaying, always faithful, and standing by even more in times of hardship.
Many NBA fans and commentators have suggested that the Raptors have the best and most devoted fan base in the league. Games are sold out nearly every night — even years ago when the team was not as successful — and fans travel hours and hours to the team’s away games to support their beloved Raptors.
Raptors games also has what Price described as a “flow,” in which “spectators achieve an ordered state of mind which is highly enjoyable” (202). When Raptors fans go to games, they become immersed in the flow and experience — from the excitement of watching the high-pace sport itself to the hype of the crowd cheering on their favourite team. It is hard not to get immersed in the flow of the game. These games may be a refuge for people going through a hard time in their everyday life, and by going to a game (or even watching a game on television), they are able to withdraw themselves from a negative state and into the positive flow of the event.
This can be compared to experiences of traditional religions like Christianity. Typically when a Christian is in a negative state of mind or going through a hardship they would attend Church, in the hopes of alleviating their troubles and achieving a state of peace or ordered headspace. There is clearly a parallel between the effects of a sports game and religious attendance — with a sports game being more rambunctious and higher energy of course.
One has only to attend a Raptors game to see the correlation between religious flow and game flow. Fans are enthralled by the plays on the court and participate in group chants or activities at the game. Even if a person is not a huge basketball fan, the energy at the games and the passion of the Raptors fans is so infectious it is hard not to get swept up in the excitement and enthrallments of the game experience.
There are customs of the game as well, similar to the existence of customs in religion. For religion, there may be a custom to cover one’s hair like in certain Muslim traditions. For Raptors games, there is the custom of wearing the team’s colours or jerseys, or more recently to wear OVO gear (representative of the popular collaboration between the Toronto Raptors and rap artist Drake).
There is also customs related to the playing of the game — fans are to cheer when the Raptors score, and boo or be silent when a member of the opposing team scores. When the opposite team is taking a foul shot, fans under the basket wave around objects to distract them; and when a Raptors player is taking a foul shot the stadium goes quiet. These are all customs embedded in the religion of Raptors basketball. Similarly to how a Catholic person would know to kneel during Mass, Raptors fans know to stand during the final play of the game.
Ansari, Sadiya. “Raptors Fans Expected to Storm Washington for Game 3 Against Wizards.” Toronto Star (Toronto, ON), Apr. 22, 2015.
Ganter, Mike. “Raptors Fans Among the NBA’s Best.” Toronto Sun (Toronto, ON), Nov. 23, 2013.
Price, Joseph L. “An American Apotheosis: Sports as Popular Religion.” In Religion and Popular Culture in America.Ed. B. D. Forbes and Jeffrey H. Mahan, 180–200. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.