A short analysis of FIBA's decision to permit the use of headgear

Published 08 June 2017 By: Saurabh Mishra

Basketball in the net at the rims
This article summarises FIBA's recent decision to permit the use of headgear in the game, relaxing its previous prohibition that had proved controversial, particularly on grounds of exercising religious freedom. It specifically looks at:
  • Background to FIBA's headgear controversy

  • The decision to amend the no-headgear rule

  • Reaction to FIBA’s decision

On 4 May 2017, the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) decided to allow the use of headgear during competition.  By way of background to this thorny issue:

  • Rule 4.4.2 of the Official Basketball Rules presently prohibits players from wearing any headgear other than a headband not exceeding 5 cm in width[1].

  • FIBA previously cited safety of players, and uniformity of equipment as the basis for having such a rule.[2]  

  • The rule has proved highly controversial[3] and has been questioned on multiple grounds, in particular relating to human rights law and a person’s right to religious freedom, after Sikh and Muslim players were required to remove their turbans and hijabs to compete[4].  

  • Given the controversy FIBA’s decided in September 2014 to implement a two-year “testing phase” to test a potential relaxation of the rule.[5] During this time, FIBA allowed national federations to apply the rule with approved exceptions[6].  FIBA has been monitoring these exemptions to gauge whether the rule should permanently be amended.


The decision to amend the no-headgear rule

During its first conference in 2017, FIBA Central Board analysed a report on the results of the testing phase, and recommended that the rule be modified as follows:

After initiating a revision process of the headgear rule (Article 4.4.2) of the Official Basketball Rules in September 2014, the Board received a report on the impact of the exceptions applied on a domestic level during a two-year period. It favoured a modification of the rule and issued a mandate for the Technical Commission to come forward with a proposal that would allow headgear to be worn safely by athletes.[7]

Consequently, the Board called upon the Technical Commission to come forward with a proposal to allow athletes to wear headgear while ensuring the athletes’ safety.

Subsequently, at FIBA’s first ever mid-term Congress held in Hong Kong in May this year, the members voted unanimously to ratify the Central Board’s decision to modify Rule 4.4.2 in order to ensure that an athlete’s religious freedom would not be compromised[8].

The amendment to the rule would still be consistent with FIBA’s narrative of safety and uniformity, as any headgear would have to adhere to the technical requirements put in place. While the rule has not officially been amended yet, it is likely that the headgear requirements will reflect the guidelines as released by FIBA[9]:

The provisions of the new rule mean that headgear is allowed when:

- it is black or white, or of the same dominant color as that of the uniform;

- it is one same color for all players on the team (as all accessories);

- it does not cover any part of the face entirely or partially (eyes, nose, lips etc.);

- it is not dangerous to the player wearing it and/or to other players;

- it has no opening/closing elements around the face and/or neck;

- it has no parts extruding from its surface.

The new rule will be effective from 1 October 2017, in time for the Africa Champions Cup, as well as the FIBA U-16 Asian Championship. Given that the rule was forcing numerous athletes to choose between profession and faith,[10] FIBA has in the author’s view done well to respond in a way which should put those concerns to rest without taking away from the essence of the Rule itself. FIBA further acknowledged that the Rule 4.4.2, as it stands, could not coexist with the laws of religion as practiced in various parts of the world[11].

The new rule comes as a result of the fact that traditional dress codes in some countries - which called for the head and/or entire body being covered - were incompatible with FIBA's previous headgear rule.


Reaction to FIBA’s decision

The change was also welcomed by the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF), which had made a similar modification to its own rules ahead of the Paralympic Games held in Rio last year[12].

The recommendation was also welcomed by coalitions[13] and lawmakers[14] who had been critical of the inadvertently discriminatory nature of the policy.

Brendan Schwab, Executive Director of the World Players Association, commented that:

We will continue to seek discussions with FIBA to ensure that it follows the move of other international sporting bodies such as the International Olympic Committee, FIFA, UEFA and the Commonwealth Games Federation to start to bring their activities in line with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.[15]

Given the reach and popularity of basketball, such a progressive approach to administration of the sport sets a positive precedent, and could potentially pave the way for other sports to revise their rules and regulations to encourage inclusivity. 

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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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