Written by Don Byrd

In case you have not noticed, basketball tourney season is upon us. High school and college players (and back-yard wannabes, I can attest) dream about competing at the end of the season with everything on the line.

This year, the girls’ team from Watkins Mill High School in Prince George County, Maryland reached their first ever regional final. Unfortunately for one athlete, junior Je’Nan Hayes, the experience was especially devastating, after officials refused to allow her to play, for the first time this season, because she lacked the proper “documented evidence,” signed by the state, that she wears a hijab for religious reasons.

The Washington Post reports:

The [National Federation of State High School Associations] rule book disallows “decorations and headwear” unless it fits specific requirements. Theresia Wynns, director of the NFHS’s Officials Association, said the rule is in place as a safety precaution and so that state officials are aware of any equipment not included in a standard uniform.

However, one exception to the rule states: “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 covering or wrap which is not abrasive, hard or dangerous to any other player and which is attached in such a way it is highly unlikely it will come off during play.”

A hijab is pretty obviously not headwear that is “abrasive, hard or dangerous to any other player,” and even more obviously is headwear of religious significance. Neither the coach nor the player knew about the rule, which is apparently rarely enforced; in fact, Ms. Hayes was allowed to play in the prior 24 games without incident. Madness indeed. 

A student should not have to choose needlessly between her faith and her desire to play sports, nor should students who wear a head covering for religious reasons face administrative hurdles to athletic participation that others do not, particularly where those hurdles serve no helpful purpose. 

As Andy Warner, head of Maryland’s athletic association, asked:

“Does this fundamentally alter the game? Does this create an inherent risk? Does it create a competitive advantage?” Warner continued. “It doesn’t do any of those things, so why are we denying what would be approved if they were to put a simple request into the association?”

Indeed, it is such a simple request to demand, why demand it at all? 

To their credit, school, referee, and athletic administrators all agree that the situation was poorly handled, noting that game officials acted on the letter, rather than the spirit, of the rule. And a rule change is reportedly being discussed.

To her credit, Je’Nan Hayes has turned the sting of religious discrimination into a desire to advocate on behalf of other boys and girls who worry their faith may conflict with their dream of playing high school sports. She also plans to try out for the basketball team again next year as a senior. Hopefully, the adults in charge will have their acts together by then.