Removing Hurdles for Religious College Athletes

New state laws are ensuring college and school athletes are allowed to wear clothing with religious significance along with their team uniforms.

August 10, 2022
Ayah Aldadah, a student athlete at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, runs wearing hijab.
Ayah Aldadah, an athlete at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, runs while wearing hijab.
(University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

A new law went into effect in Maryland this summer permitting college and school athletes to wear articles of clothing with religious significance while playing, or to make changes to their uniforms in line with their religious ideals.

The Inclusive Athletic Attire Act, requires the governing bodies of public colleges and universities, community college boards of trustees and the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association to allow athletes to "modify an athletic or team uniform to make the attire more modest to conform to the requirements or preferences of the student athlete's religion or culture." This means athletes can now wear head coverings, such as a kippah, hijab or turban, or wear additional clothing such as undershirts or leggings for religious reasons.

"Hopefully, no student in Maryland will ever have to worry about not being able to compete in sports because of their religious beliefs," said Zainab Chaudry, the Maryland director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations or CAIR, who testified before members of the state House and Senate on behalf of the bill. "It's very long overdue. We're really grateful to the lawmakers who voted on the right side of history to make sure students don't have to choose between their religion and their passion for sports."

Maryland's law was inspired by Je'Nan Hayes, a high school student who approached CAIR to advocate on her behalf after a referee benched her basketball team's regional final in 2017 because she was wearing a hijab for which she had not gotten a state-signed waiver. Chaudry said "numerous" Muslim families, mostly parents of high school students, have called on CAIR to support students who were being prevented from playing in school sports because they wore hijabs.

The law was drafted based on a similar law passed in Illinois last year which prevents public K-12 schools, colleges and universities from requiring athletes to obtain a waiver to wear ritual clothing or modify their uniforms for religious reasons. Utah also adopted a resolution this March that encourages colleges and universities and public and private K-12 schools "to allow youth to wear religious clothing or headwear or to modify their uniforms to accommodate religious beliefs or personal values of modesty without barriers or limitations."

Some college athletes made headlines in the last two decades for being among the first to wear certain kinds of religious garb. Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, who played women's basketball for the University of Memphis and Indiana State University, became the first NCAA Division I athlete to wear a hijab on the court in 2010. Darsh Preet Singh made history as the first turban-wearing Sikh to play NCAA basketball in 2004 while at Trinity University in Texas.

But Simran Jeet Singh, executive director of the Religion & Society program at the Aspen Institute and Darsh's older brother, said there's no overarching policy that nationally ensures college athletes can wear clothing of religious significance.

"Unfortunately, there's no standard policy that guarantees athletes in this country the right to play sports in this country with their articles of faith intact. I mean, aside from the Constitution, of course," he said in an email. "But truly, this is the challenge. Without rules in place that affirm religious minorities the right to play, the decisions fall to the discretion of those interpreting the rules -- and we all know how poorly this can play out."

The National Collegiate Athletic Association generally requires students to get waivers to wear religious headwear, though that could change in the future.

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"NCAA sports have historically granted waivers for religious headwear to be worn during contests and are discussing rules that will allow the headwear to be worn ... so that student-athletes/schools no longer have to go through the waiver process," according to an email from the association. "Currently, they do have to request a waiver, but again, NCAA has granted the requests."

Some NCAA sports, such as women's volleyball, women's lacrosse and women's bowling, have also eased up on uniform restrictions to be more inclusive and allow athletes to wear uniform bottoms that vary in style and length. Some sports also have rules permitting religious medallions to be worn.

Ayah Aldadah, a cross country and track and field runner at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the NCAA allows her to run with her hijab, leggings and undershirt without an issue. But in high school, she had to get a waiver every year to modify her uniform, which her coach had to show Illinois High School Association officials at races. She believes the waiver process likely deters other Muslim women from getting involved in high school athletics. This can pose an obstacle to them pursuing college and professional sports.

"I think it stops them," she said. "It's such a barrier I think … People don't want to go through that process of getting the waiver. They just would rather do sports on their own" rather than jump through extra hoops to be a part of a high school team.

Aldadah testified in support of the Illinois bill before a state House of Representatives committee last March. She thinks these kinds of laws "are going to open up a lot of doors for hijabi athletes."

Singh had a similar experience in high school in Texas. Coaches and referees prevented him from playing in soccer games because of his turban, so he got a special letter from the United States Soccer Federation permitting him to play.

"But that was just for me, and it was just a band-aid," he said. "Wouldn't it have made more sense to change a discriminatory [policy] rather than address the issues on a case-by-case basis? My older brother had to sit out a year of high school basketball because the governing body did not approve of his turban, and my younger brother had to guarantee his right to play college basketball in the NCAA, too."

Chaudry said the main argument of opponents of religious garb in school and college sports is that bulky clothing items are a safety hazard, but she believes those concerns "don't hold water." She noted that there are now hijabs especially designed for sports.

Matthew Mayhew, Flesher Professor of Educational Administration at Ohio State University, said laws that solidify athletes' right to wear religious clothing could put renewed attention on religious diversity, equity and inclusion on campuses. He's one of the researchers who launched the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey, or the IDEALS survey, a five-year project from 2015 to 2019 that examined how students interact with those of other belief systems and what makes students of different faith backgrounds, or no faith, feel more or less at home on campuses.

"A lot of institutions kind of put religion in the periphery of these conversations," Mayhew said. But if more states adopt similar legislation as Maryland, "I think institutions are really going to have to center religious diversity in the conversation about diversity writ large, much more so than they have in the past."

His hope is that campus leaders think more broadly about "how do we roll out this welcoming climate for anyone who identifies across any different religion?"

He noted however that these bills also call attention to some potentially "tricky" issues related to religious symbols and college sports. For example, he said coaches should be aware of the potential power dynamics at play if they wear religious symbols, especially given "Christian privilege", which he described as the dominance of Christian symbolism and history nationally and on some college campuses.

"If a coach is wearing something that communicates some sort of value set and that value set then silences some members on the team, or ostracizes some members on the team, or makes the members on the team think that they have to do something in order to get into the coach's favor, it's problematic, and that's where power comes in," he said. "But if the players themselves just want to express themselves in some meaningful way religiously, I think they should be able to do that."

Singh said the law in Maryland was a "crucial" step toward making religious athletes from minority faiths feel more included.

" … It ensures the right for religious minorities to play in organized sports without them having to worry about how people might try to bar them, or without them having to carry around a silly letter that proves they have the right to play," he said. "In psychological terms, I hope this will be liberating for people who no longer have to expend unnecessary energy on outdated rules that exclude them and give them the freedom to live their lives with more joy and openness."

Aldadah, the University of Illinois athlete, hopes that more states institute these kinds of laws.

"If the whole country, state by state, were able to pass laws like this … I think we would see a big growth in not just hijabi athletes but a lot of modest athletes in all types of sports," she said. "I just hope people can realize the impact these bills would have on diversity in sport."

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