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Friday, March 09, 2007

Tackling prejudice for a football dream

You won't find many Klan meetings in Eugene, Ore., a more receptive place than most for an Indo-Canadian kid with a turban and a long beard to start a college football career.

Nuvraj Bassi arrived on the campus of the University of Oregon a month before terrorists brought down the Twin Towers in New York, a traumatizing event that not only took a grievous toll in humanity but in the peaceful co-existence between people of different religions and backgrounds.

Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus -- who cared? -- they all looked like terrorists, and anyone who appeared different kindled uncertainty and provided ammo for the racists. Not so in Eugene.

"After 9/11, I guess I portrayed the picture of a terrorist," Bassi, a B.C. Lions' draft pick, said Thursday. "Racist people like to say stupid things. It was just the timing of everything. Anyone in a full turban and beard was suspect. It wasn't that bad in Eugene. Nothing I couldn't handle. It was a little worse at the away games. The comments made toward my family really pissed me off."

Two years later, he again felt the sting of being an outsider, playing for the Oregon Ducks against the Minnesota Golden Gophers in the 2003 Sun Bowl in El Paso, Tex. A Latino comedian named Freddie Soto, performing his routine to guests, boosters and players at a pre-bowl dinner, remarked on the diversity on the Oregon football team. When Soto asked "Where's that guy [with the turban]?" to prove his point, Bassi raised his hand. Soto delivered the punch line that he had found "Osama bin Laden."

"It was supposed to be funny, but I didn't take it lightly," Bassi recalls. "Actually, I was pretty disgusted and very angry, and I walked out. Some of my teammates were pretty shocked. Guys from the Minnesota team starting booing."

For Bassi, a practising Sikh who was born in Vancouver and blended into a larger mosaic at his high school in North Delta, being singled out is a unique experience.

On the field of play where he grew up, nobody seem to care that he played with a turban under his helmet....

While Singh isn't as strident about his Sikhism, he is just as familiar with insensitivity. Last year, at McMahon Stadium in Calgary, the game-day operators punched in the favourite expression of Apu, the convenience store clerk from The Simpsons, over the public address system. "Thank you, come again."

[Lions guard Bobby] Singh, whose offside penalty presumably precipitated the teasing sound clip, complained and the Lions were later issued a written apology.


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