Playing basketball for her Gaithersburg, Maryland high school's varsity team was her dream. So for the first time this year, Je'Nan Hayes took a shot at it. Luckily, she tried out and got accepted as part of the crew — but not without disappointment.
Despite having played all 24 games this year, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) — a body that regulates competition rules for most U.S. high school sports and activities — states in its rulebook that “head decorations and headwear are prohibited.” And it was precisely because of that rule that she was kept from playing.
But according to the organization's regulations, exceptions also exist.
Based on medical, cosmetic, or religious reasons, exemptions may only be granted if documented evidence showing the individual must not expose his or her head is provided to the state. Only then can the state association review the request and approve the covering — and only if regulators don't have reasons to believe the wrap would come unattached during a game.
Hayes sat during the entire regional final game at Oxon Hill not knowing what was going on, CNN reports. It was only after the team lost 51-36 that her coach pulled Hayes aside to tell her about the hijab rule.
"Once I found out I had mixed emotions — anger, sadness and disappointment — at the ref for making the call," Hayes told CNN.
Prior to the whole ordeal, however, the school hosting the game wasn't aware of the rule, Watkins Mill High School athletic director Reggie Spears said. The decision that Hayes needed an authorization came instead from officials in Prince George's County.
To Spears, this was an unnecessary:
"We tried to get an exception at the game, but that didn't happen and they stuck with their decision. It was in poor judgment. Should there be a rule, absolutely? It is necessary because you can get some crazy requests to wear this or that — I understand why there is a rule. But I think there was some common sense missing here.”
Only after Hayes was kept from playing, the spokesman for NFHS, Bill Reinhard, said that the hijab shouldn't have been an issue:
"Unfortunately the officials made a strict interpretation of the National Federation of State High Schools playing rules for basketball instead of the spirit of the rule designed to ensure safety and competitive fairness. There should have been no denial of participation and we are committed to working with the school and the family to ensure this does not happen again."
The teen has since teamed up with the Muslim advocacy group Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) to change the rules.
"I'm Muslim, I'm American. I was born here. I've been here all my life. I'm human and just like you I have feelings," Hayes said. "This is the way I choose to represent my faith and it isn't because I'm being forced. I want to."
We're glad Hayes won't be kept from pursuing her dream only because of her faith and how she expresses it, but we're also saddened to know local government officials refused to allow her to play for the regional final.
Hopefully, this story will serve as an example to other teens out there who are just trying to follow their dreams not to give up — no matter what.