How FIBA’s “no headgear rule” highlights the socio-cultural challenges of regulating a sport

Published 19 November 2015 By: Saurabh Mishra

Indira_Kaljo

Globalisation has hardly left any realm untouched, and sport is no exception. So it is perhaps unsurprising that we are seeing conflicts arise between the international rules of a particular game and the more localised socio-cultural and religious norms of society.  

The International Basketball Federation’s (FIBA) prohibition on the use of “headgear, hair accessories and jewellery1 is a prime example. Last year it led to players wearing turbans2 and hijabs3 being prevented from competing at high profile international tournaments. This was much to the dismay of some observers, particularly as basketball is part of the Olympic Movement, aiming to educate youth through sports,4 and promoting the harmonious development of humanity.5

This article analyses the effects of FIBA’s ‘no headgear’ rule and looks at how religious and cultural headgear is being accommodated in other sports with the aim of illustrating the socio-cultral challenges that governing bodies face when trying to regulate their sport in today’s world.

 

The“no headgear” rule

Article 4.4.2 of FIBA’s Official Basketball Rules 2014 states:

"Players shall not wear equipment (objects) that may cause injury to other players.

  • The following are not permitted:
    • Finger, hand, wrist, elbow or forearm guards, casts or braces made of leather, plastic, pliable (soft) plastic, metal or any other hard substance, even if covered with soft padding.
    • Objects that could cut or cause abrasions (fingernails must be closely cut).
    • Headgear, hair accessories and jewellery (referred to as the “no headgear rule” for the purposes of this article)."6

FIBA have explained that the headgear rule was created 10 years ago for the "safety on the basketball court and uniformity of equipment within a team”.7 However, the rule makes no distinction between sporting headgear and other types of headgear (e.g. religious). In this respect, it arguably conflicts with Article 1.3 of the FIBA General Statutes, which states “FIBA maintains absolute political and religious neutrality and does not tolerate any form of discrimination.8

The situation has been exacerbated by two inconsistencies:

  1. The application of the rule by FIBA officials at FIBA sanctioned tournaments (examples below), which has led to confusion among the athletes; and
  2. The application of the rule across the wider game; with headgear being permitted in other non-FIBA competitions and now even in certain FIBA competitions (see below).9

Examples of the consequences of the rule

Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, after plying her trade in the NCAA Division I in the United States of America, decided to try and pursue a career in professional basketball in Europe.10 However, she was prevented from participating in European basketball leagues that operate under the aegis of FIBA owing to the “no headgear” rule. Interestingly, the NCAA Rulebook also states that “Head decorations, head wear and jewellery are illegal”,11 but players are allowed to compete in religious headgear - a much more accommodative stance when compared with FIBA’s rules.

Indira Kaljo,12 a Bosnian athlete based in California, was also forced to make a choice between a career in basketball, and her faith, since she belatedly chose to wear a hijab while pursuing a career as a professional athlete. Her path to try and play in Europe was also hindered by the no headgear rule. Kaljo launched a petition13 against the no headgear rule, and commented that the provision indirectly prohibites a large number of people from participating in the sport.14

At an international level, on 12 July 2014, during the fifth Asia Cup in China, two Sikh members of the Indian contingent, Amritpal Singh and Amjyot Singh, were required to remove their turbans to be permitted to compete.15 The athletes had been allowed to play whilst wearing their turbans in the past, including the FIBA Asian Championship held the previous year, in Manila.16

And in September 2014, the Qatari women’s basketball team withdrew from the Asian Games in Incheon as officials would not let them compete wearing their hijabs.17 Amal Mohamed Mohamed, one of the athletes on the team, claimed that they had prior to the games, been given assurances regarding the team’s participation while wearing the hijab.18

 

Challenges to the rule

Following the incident involving Amritpal Singh and Amjyot Singh, the Indian Governement, through the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, wrote to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to register their concerns. They recommended the introduction of a regulation to permit certain types of headgear such as turbans.19

Basketball Federation of India also lodged a formal protest with FIBA20 and notified the IOC in an attempt to garner public support.

Similar actions where brought by organisations such as the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF), which advocated a rethink of the policy through various petitions online, citing the often quoted belief regarding sports being a means of uniting people from diverse cultures, religions and races.21

And from the human rights perspective, Human Rights Watch stated in the aftermath of Qatari women’s withdrawal from the Asian Games, “it is difficult to see how a ban on the headscarf is anything other than an unnecessary restriction on the players’ rights to religious freedom and personal autonomy.22  Further analysis of the human rights arguments can be found in Nikki Dryden’s article ‘Why human rights law demands FIBA review its “no-turbansdecisions(available here).23

 

FIBA’s “relaxation” of the rule

On 13 September 2014, in the first meeting of the newly elected FIBA Central Board under the leadership of Horacio Muratore, the members discussed the rule and announced that they had decided to relax it with temporary effect, implementing a two year testing phase, which could be made permanent over time. Their release stated:

In response to the various requests received, the Central Board held in-depth discussions regarding rules about uniforms and decided to put a testing phase into place for the next two years that will consist of:

- Relaxing the current rules regarding headgear in order to enable national federations to request, as of now, exceptions to be applied at the national level within their territory without incurring any sanctions for violation of FIBA's Official Basketball Rules. National Federations wishing to apply for such an exception to the uniform regulations shall submit a detailed request to FIBA. Once approved, they shall submit follow-up reports twice a year to monitor the use of such exceptions.

- The players will be allowed to play in FIBA endorsed 3x3 competitions - both nationally and internationally - wearing headgear without restrictions, unless the latter presents a direct threat to their safety or that of other players on the court. Players wishing to take part in such competitions with headgear must ensure that a detailed request for approval is addressed to FIBA.

- FIBA will communicate with National Federations over the coming weeks on the subject of these request procedures.24

In the long term, FIBA’s plan is to ensure that all such requests, as well as their implementation, are monitored to gauge whether or not a relaxation in the rule could indeed be a viable option permanently. A number of parameters are to be looked at, such as the specifications regarding the headgear itself.25 A primary report is to be provided to the Central Board later in 2015, and a full review of the developments in the relaxation period is to be produced after the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio.26

The limitations of the relaxation period and the broader issue of inclusiveness in sport

While FIBA’s announcement was welcomed,27 the limitation of the testing period has done little to rectify the problem at an international level.28 This was confirmed by the withdrawal of the Qatari women’s team from the Asian Games just 10 days after the announcement was made. In the aftermath of their withdrawal, the permissibility of the hijab in other sports became a focal point. Female archers from Islamic nations also competing at the Games spoke out against the rule, as archery allows the use of a hijab during competition.29

In football, FIFA has taken steps to remedy a similar problem, lifting a ban on headscarves for female players, and it is noteworthy that the ban was initially in place on the grounds of safety. The International Football Association Board (IFAB) agreed to overturn a ban in place since 2007, provided that the specifications and designs for permissible headscarves are duly approved by the Board.30 The step was taken following a request from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), with a two year testing phase being put in place prior to making the change permanent.31 Subsequently, FIFA also agreed to allow male footballers of the Sikh faith to participate in its competitions while wearing a turban,32 in a bid to ensure that secularism and religious neutrality are indeed safeguarded.

 

Comment

It is important to note that FIBA itself has historically shown signs of being accommodative of varying cultures. In 2011, a compromise was made with the Israeli Federation to allow an Orthodox Jewish athlete to compete in Europe while wearing skin-toned sleeves, in line with her religious beliefs.33 While the Board initially refused to allow a deviation on the grounds of uniformity of equipment,34 a subsequent turnaround points to the fact that it is well within the Board’s willingness to recognise the religious rights of an athlete.

While athletes will have to wait until the conclusion of the 2016 Summer Olympics to find out if indeed they would have to choose between faith and competing in their sport, the case for a permanent amendment to the provision is in the author’s opinion a strong one.

Moreover though, the controversy illustrates why governing bodies need to do everything within their power to ensure that socio-cultural inclusiveness is more than just a utopian concept and that their rules are harmonised to meet the demands of the diverse global framework within which they operate.

 

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Author

Saurabh Mishra

Saurabh Mishra

Saurabh is a lawyer working as counsel for Star India Pvt. Ltd. He is also associated with the Football Players Association of India (FPAI). He received his B.A./LLB from The West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata, and was a recipient of the Graduate Scholar Award at the Fifth International Conference on Sport and Society in July 2014. He has previously worked with organisations such as Adidas and Atletico de Kolkata, a franchise in the Hero Indian Super League.

 

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