International Basketball Federation Relaxes Ban On Religious Headwear For Now

CREDIT: AP
CREDIT: AP
Fordson High School basketball players prep for a basketball game in Dearborn, Michigan. CREDIT: AP
Fordson High School basketball players prep for a basketball game in Dearborn, Michigan. CREDIT: AP

Following a wave of international criticism, basketball’s largest global body announced Tuesday that it will relax its policy banning players from wearing religious headwear, although many faith groups think the new rules are still too restrictive.

The International Basketball Federation (FIBA), which oversees prominent professional leagues in Europe and boasts 213 national federations worldwide, has long enforced a rigid policy that prohibits “headgear, hair accessories and jewelry” and only allows players to wear a 5-centimeter headband to control hair and sweat. Although officials often claim that the rules exist as a safety precaution, the regulations have drawn heavy criticism because they effectively prohibit Sikh, Muslim, and Jewish players who participate in FIBA games from wearing traditional religious headgear such as turbans, hijabs, and yarmulkes.

During its first meeting of the 2014–2019 term, however, FIBA’s newly-elected leadership announced that they would dial back their enforcement of the policy and begin a two-year “test phase” that will allow national groups to apply for exceptions to the rules for games played within their borders.

“[FIBA is] relaxing the current rules regarding headgear in order to enable national federations to request, as of now, exceptions to be applied at the national level within their territory without incurring any sanctions for violation of FIBA’s Official Basketball Rules,” read a report on the FIBA.com website. “National Federations wishing to apply for such an exception to the uniform regulations shall submit a detailed request to FIBA. Once approved, they shall submit follow-up reports twice a year to monitor the use of such exceptions.”

FIBA also announced that it would allow head coverings in both domestic and international 3×3 competitions, and promised to be in dialogue with national federations about how to navigate the new rules.

But despite these changes, the newly relaxed provisions do not fully overturn the ban, and players participating in 5×5 international tournaments such as the FIBA Basketball World Cup will still be barred from wearing turbans, hijabs, and yarmulkes. FIBA had originally promised to review the policy before this year’s World Cup, but delayed the decision until after the tournament.

Jasjit Singh, executive director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund in the United States, said FIBA’s announcement was a hopeful sign, but nowhere near enough.

“FIBA has taken a step towards change, but this policy alteration will continue to lead to an unequal playing field,” Singh told sikh24.com. “We hope that FIBA will soon recognize Sikhs, Muslims and Orthodox Jews can freely play with their respective articles of faith, without process or paperwork and beyond their home countries and ask all to join us as we tell FIBA to let Sikhs play freely.”

Criticism of the policy has been on the rise in recent months, with various religious and political groups staging protests against FIBA’s rules. Sikh groups such as the Sikh Coalition in the United States have launched social media campaigns to “Call Foul” on FIBA, several members of U.S. Congress have signed letters decrying the regulations, and a women’s team from the Maldives pulled out of an under-18 Asian tournament in August when they were ordered to remove their hijabs during games. Individual players have also started refusing to play in FIBA leagues: Indira Kaljo, a Bosnian-American Muslim woman who played professional basketball in Ireland for a year, left her team in 2014 and returned to the United States because, according to her, she “shouldn’t have to decide between faith and sports.”

Critics of the FIBA’s rules point to other organizations such as the NCAA, which freely allows basketball players to wear hijabs and turbans. In addition, FIFA, the international soccer federation, recently revoked its ban on headwear following protests and a two year review of the policy.