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Pa. athletes shouldn't need waivers to play in hijabs | Helen Ubiñas

Athletes shouldn't need special permission to wear religious headgear that represents their faith under the guise of safety.

Nasihah Thompson-King was benched by a referee after she refused to take off her hijab for a public league basketball game.
Nasihah Thompson-King was benched by a referee after she refused to take off her hijab for a public league basketball game.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Add waiver to the ever-growing dictionary of words used to disguise discrimination.

It came into play in suburban Philadelphia in September, when a referee banned a turban-wearing soccer player from taking the field because he didn't have a waiver allowing him to wear the religious head covering in observation of his Sikh faith.

And then it happened again Friday in Philadelphia, when a referee benched a hijab-wearing basketball player in a postseason game for the same reason.

Nasihah Thompson-King, a 16-year-old student from Mastery Charter School Shoemaker Campus, said the woman refereeing her high school basketball game had been riding her at an earlier contest. Where was her waiver? she wanted to know.

Thompson-King didn't know what the woman was talking about; she'd been playing ball in a hijab in various leagues since the sixth grade and had never been asked for a waiver or to remove the garment, she said. Some referees, it seems, recognized the unnecessary waiver for what it is.

Thompson-King played that day. But two days later, during a quarterfinal playoff game against Academy at Palumbo, the referee was back.

No waiver. No game.

That wasn't a choice for Thompson-King. "She was asking me to take off a part of myself to play," the high school sophomore said when we spoke this week.

Thompson-King, who plays for the Mastery Charter North-Pickett Pumas, which is part of Philadelphia Public League's District 12, was upset and embarrassed. Family, friends, and her principal were livid.

Why, in 2018, was a young athlete singled out for her religious beliefs under the guise of safety.

An angry aunt took to Facebook. City officials quickly expressed their support. Philadelphia Public League president James Patrick Lynch sent an apology and vowed to take it up with the statewide organization that governs the referees officiating at the games.

"This incident should never have occurred in the first place," Lynch wrote. "No Philadelphia Public League member school student-athlete should have to sit out a game because of his or her religious identity and beliefs."

At the game, Thompson-King said, her coach took the blame; he should have filed the waiver, he told her.

Way to be a grown-up, Coach. But here's the thing: There shouldn't be a waiver. Especially when there is plenty of proof that an athlete's religious head covering does not interfere with sports in any way. Consider Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad or Darsh Preet Singh, the first turbaned Sikh player in the NCAA.

I didn't hear back from the referee. But I did get to chat with the executive director of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA), Robert A. Lombardi.

"This is a communication issue only," he insisted, adding that all the school needed to have done was file the waiver. "It's not a religious issue."

When I tried to communicate that the waiver for religious head coverings struck me as at the very least unnecessary and at worst  potentially discriminatory, he took offense. "I don't think the rule is bad," he said. Furthermore, he said, members voted for it, and no official has the ability to waive it.

Well … plenty of people told me that's not exactly true. Most of the time, coaches and players repeatedly told me, referees don't ask about the waiver.

Maryland changed its rules after a high school girl was held out of a basketball game for wearing a hijab last year. And after too many years of campaigning by athletes, the international governing body of basketball, FIBA, announced last year that it would allow players to wear head garments that comply with their religious faith.

Times and rules change, why can't Pennsylvania?

Lombardi was fed up. That very morning, he said, he'd sent authorization to Lynch allowing Thompson-King to play with her hijab.

"It's resolved," he said. "It's over and done with."

I wouldn't bet on that. On Tuesday, Lynch sent Lombardi a letter urging the PIAA  to immediately adopt a rule to end the requirement for any waiver form for a religious exception, "as it does not alter the sport, provide any competitive advantage, or risk of injury."

"Such waivers are unfair to student-athletes," he wrote. "They should always be eligible to play, and any religious garment worn with their game uniform should never prevent them from playing a game or participating in a sport they love."

I'm told that the referee will not be officiating at the next game on Wednesday and that Lynch and other supporters will be there to make sure that all Thompson-King and her teammates have to worry about is playing the game they love.

Hope they win. But I also hope they keep their eye on the bigger prize — amending the rules so nobody gets to play hijab police.