Before we start, let’s all give high praise to the school superintendents, athletic directors, coaches, players and others who fought strenuously with the New York State High School Athletic Association to convince it to lift its racist policy against hair beads commonly worn by students of color.
There’s no evidence that a player wearing beads in his or her hair presents a danger to other players any more than any other jewelry or piece of equipment commonly worn in competition. Nor does wearing hair beads give a player an unfair advantage.
Yet the rule was indiscriminately enforced against players who wear beads as an expression of their culture and race on at least two occasions in the past couple of years. You can bet the league didn’t ever demand such scrutiny for barrettes and bobby pins.
Thankfully, after pressure from the high school athletic community, the NYSHSAA backed down and put a moratorium on the policy. Officials listened to the protests, realized the policy was misguided and discriminatory, and took action. Good for them.
Now here’s where we have an issue.
Why only a moratorium? Why not just get rid of the policy altogether? Why take, as NYSPHSAA Executive Director Robert Zayas said, time to “fully examine” the rule?
What’s to examine? If beads were an actual safety or competition concern, the responsible thing to do would be to keep the policy in place while it was under review, right?
This isn’t the first time this issue has come up in high school sports, and it’s not only a recent or a local issue.
Last year, a 16-year-old Black high school softball player in North Carolina was forced to cut off her beaded braids in the middle of a game due to a similar rule. (The beads were woven in so tightly they couldn’t be simply pulled out.)
Last month, a video went viral of teammates helping a Black power lifter her remove her beads after she was told by officials to remove them. (As if someone having beads in her hair was going to help her lift more weight or injure another weight-lifter.)
Elsewhere, athletes of color have been ordered to remove beads and cut dreadlocks and braids in order to remain in competitions.
But individual sports leagues may not have to deal with the issue much longer.
Several states, including most recently Massachusetts, have passed laws against discrimination based on hair texture or style — including locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots and Afros.
The legislation is commonly known as a CROWN Act, which stands for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.
The House of Representatives passed a CROWN Act bill along party lines last month with President Biden’s strong support, but the Senate has yet to act.
So change is coming, and it’s long overdue.
Certainly, the top concern of sports leagues should be the safety of their youthful competitors. But rules against beads and other common, non-hazardous hair adornments have nothing to do with safety and all to do with discrimination.
It’s time to end these practices immediately.