Basketball's Degrading Turban Ban

The International Basketball Federation will review on Wednesday its ban on religious headgear, a rule that effectively discriminates against Muslims, Sikhs and Jews alike.

According to FIBA Article 4.4.2, "Players shall not wear equipment (objects) that may cause injury to other players." This includes hijabs, turbans and yarmulkes, because apparently a piece of cloth over someone's hair poses a great threat to international athletes.

Last week, an Indian Sikh was forced to remove his patka at the Asia U-18 Championship, just a month after a similar situation involving two Indian Sikhs at the Asia Cup. The athletes involved have described the incidents as "humiliating."

The Basketball Federation of India formally lodged a protest with FIBA and notified the International Olympic Committee, as FIBA's rules extend toward Olympic competition as well. There is a growing Twitter movement to #LetSikhsPlay and a petition has more than 50,000 signatures. Indian celebrities and politicians have joined the fight, as have two members of the U.S. House.

On a practical level, all evidence suggests that FIBA's rule is rather pointless. In March, the Smithsonian honored Darsh Preet Singh, a Trinity University student who became the first turbaned NCAA basketball player in 2004. In January, Northwestern freshman Aaron Liberman became the first Big Ten player and only the second Division I athlete to wear a yarmulke on the basketball court. And Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir shattered glass ceilings and scoring records on her way to becoming the first woman to wear a hijab while playing for Memphis and Indiana State.

Somehow, all those players managed to make it through their seasons without causing bodily harm to opponents. One might even argue that an errant elbow or extra-sweaty hardwood pose more of a threat on a basketball court than a thin piece of cloth.

Furthermore, the association has proved capable of making necessary accommodations. In 2011, FIBA and the Israeli national team reached a compromise that allowed an Orthodox Jewish woman to compete in the European championship while wearing skin-toned sleeves to comply with her faith's modesty rules.

And if you want to take the truly cynical, Darren Rovell route, think of all the cash FIBA is missing out on by not capitalizing on officially branded religious headgear sales.

In all seriousness, the ban is damaging to FIBA's larger mission. Fostering religious freedom is tantamount to FIBA's value of openness: "to everybody everywhere, prestigious and credible." It's also necessary to the organization's stated goal of increasing basketball's popularity and growing its participation. India could very well be the world's next basketball superpower, but not if the sport's governing body can't figure out how to accommodate its athletes. It's not exactly smart for an association of 213 member nations to enact policies that discriminate against more than 23 percent of the world's population.

It's especially damaging to the cause of women's sports around the world. After graduating in 2009, Abdul-Qaadir was prevented by FIBA's hijab ban from signing with a professional team. In 2012, international pressure forced Brunei, Qatar and Saudi Arabia to send a woman to the Summer Games for the first time, making it the first Olympics in which each member nation had female representation. Conservative Saudi clerics proved particularly formidable in fighting the mandate, arguing that sports would open up women to immorality -- "steps of the devil," as it were.

Forcing Muslim, Sikh and Jewish athletes to remove their headgear lends credence to the ridiculous notion that modesty, faith and sports cannot coexist. FIBA is effectively providing some justification to conservative religious leaders who assert their power by restricting access to sports -- a human right -- under the guise of piety. FIBA is no better than the clerics who force athletes to choose between their religion and their sport.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Sikhs were a target of ignorant Americans who associated their turbans with terrorism. Anti-Muslim violence has recently flared up in majority-Buddhist countries such as Sri Lanka and Myanmar. The Gaza war has incited a rise in anti-Semitism throughout Europe. Our differences often seem insurmountable, but as Singh tweeted, "The court was the great equalizer. Game speaks louder than turbans, hijabs, yarmulkes."

The world is doing a good enough job oppressing religious minorities. It doesn't need help from FIBA.

To contact the writer of this article: Kavitha A. Davidson at

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Stacey Shick at