Basketball player barred for wearing a hijab

Basketball referees refused to allow a Muslim girl to play in a regional championship game, even though other referees had allowed her to play in 24 other games before it, when she tried to enter the game wearing a hijab on March 3, WMAR-TV (ABC affiliate) reports from Watkins Mill High School in Gaithersburg, Maryland.


Interbatch Games, 2009 (Zharif Hussein / Flickr CC)

Nothing can be worn on the head, referees told her in the regional game against Oxon Hill High School, citing a line in the rulebook published by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS):

Head decorations and headwear, except [rubber cloth, elastic, plastic bands used for controlling the hair], are prohibited.

Exceptions: State associations may on an individual basis permit a player to participate while wearing a head covering if it meets the following criteria:

… For religious reasons — in the event there is documented evidence provided to the state association that a participant may not expose his/her uncovered head, the state association may approve a head covering or wrap which is not abrasive, hard, or dangerous …

The referee in this case took that to mean, quite literally, that the state association had to give the girl some kind of letter saying it had approved her wearing of a headscarf, or hijab, for religious reasons.

Since the player, 16-year-old Je’nan Hayes, had no such letter from the state association, the referee refused to let her play, since she refused to remove her hijab.

The state association, for its part, disagreed with the referee’s interpretation of the rule, sending ABC-2 a statement that read, in part: “Unfortunately the officials made a strict interpretation of the National Federation of State High Schools playing rules for basketball instead of the spirit of the rule designed to ensure safety and competitive fairness. There should have been no denial of participation, and we are committed to working with the school and the family to ensure this does not happen again.”

It is not my place to question the call of a basketball referee, and if requested, the Maryland Public Secondary School Athletic Association would certainly have written a letter stating clearly that Je’nan was wearing the hijab for religious reasons and should be allowed to play since the hijab was clearly covered in the list of exceptions.

The rulebook needs to be rewritten, though, in such a way that transfers the call for this particular exception to the referee and removes it from the state high school athletic association, which was not called upon to act prior to the March 3 game in this case.

Notwithstanding my disdain for strict and literal interpretation of rules when such adherence violates every construct of the spirit of those very rules, trying to argue that the referee made the wrong call in this case is like trying to argue balls and strikes with a baseball umpire. Shake your heads all you want, hang them in despair.

But before next winter’s basketball season begins, write a rule or issue guidance that Muslim girls can play basketball while wearing a hijab. Trying to tell some referee or a group of high school volunteer officials how they should interpret rules that are written in plain and clear English is not the place of a state high school association or of an Islamic relations organization, both of which have, I tend to think, bigger fish to fry.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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