TORONTO - The Toronto Raptors say a new line of team-branded hijabs is part of a broader effort to be more inclusive to fans of all cultures.
The team's parent company, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, unveiled the Nike Pro hijabs emblazoned with the team logo in a social media post on Friday.
In doing so, they say the Raptors became the first team in the National Basketball Association to offer an athletic hijab for Muslim women.
MLSE Senior Marketing Director Jerry Ferguson says the organization was inspired to create the hijabs by a local Muslim women's organization known as the Hijabi Ballers.
Ferguson says MLSE designed the gear in collaboration with the women, who regularly play basketball at a community court associated with the team.
He says the Raptors want to send a message of inclusion to its widely diverse fan base, which grew substantially during the playoff run that saw the team win its first NBA championship earlier this year.
Ferguson says having hijabs available to female Muslim athletes who wish to wear them allows the team to send a message of tolerance.
"One of the things that we are very interested in is moving from saying we are just about inclusivity and accessibility, and finding ways to bring products and ideas to market that actually prove that," he said in a telephone interview.
Ferguson says the hijabs, available only at the team's official store at its downtown Toronto home arena, allows female Muslim athletes to wear gear supporting their team while taking part in their sport of choice.
Doing so, he said, emphasizes that basketball courts should be places where all feel welcome and included.
The Hijabi Ballers seconded the message, welcoming the branded hijabs as a symbol of empowerment.
"Our goal . . . is to ensure Muslim girls and women feel like they belong on those courts, in the mainstream sports world and restating the idea that sports are for everyone, no matter your beliefs," founder Amreen Kadwa said in a statement.
Hijabs geared towards Muslim women athletes have been gaining traction in recent years.
While smaller manufacturers of athletic hijabs existed long before, Nike made headlines in 2017 by announcing plans to start marketing its own version.
The International Basketball Federation and the international soccer organization FIFA lifted bans on head coverings in recent years.
The Raptors-branded hijabs represent the first time MLSE has offered such a product, Ferguson said.
The move was celebrated by the National Council of Canadian Muslims, which praised the Hijabi Ballers for spurring the team to action.
Executive director Mustafa Farooq acknowledged that the issue of hijabs in sports has proven a divisive issue, with opponents disclaiming it as a symbol of oppression.
"It's hard for me to understand that," Farooq said.
"One of the beautiful things about sports is that everyone can play. Highlighting that ... everyone should get a shot is such a beautiful thing to do, so obviously we thank the Raptors for taking this step."