Fatima Saiyada arrived at the gym on a mid-September Saturday during her freshman volleyball season, ready to compete. Every Saturday, her Northside College Prep team participated in volleyball tournaments at Von Steuben High School. Her coach was planning to have her start. She was excited.
Then she was benched.
A referee said Saiyada could not compete because the long-sleeve shirt she was wearing underneath her jersey to respect her Islamic identity was white and did not match the team’s black jersey. Saiyada said she’d worn the white undershirt at the tournament the previous week and was allowed to compete, but this referee didn’t budge and Saiyada had to sit out.
“I don’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to (play) because I’ve done it before during the same year,” Saiyada recalled to the Tribune. “It was a different ref, of course, but I was still allowed to play and I feel like if I was allowed to play, I would have done really well.”
A little over a year after Illinois passed the Inclusive Athletic Attire Act, some athletes say there is still confusion on the courts and playing fields when it comes down to the details and how far rules should go.
The law, which was the first of its kind when passed in September 2021, allows student-athletes in Illinois to modify their uniform to match any cultural, religious or personal preferences they may have without facing any penalties or disqualifications during competitions, like wearing longer sleeves, full-length pants or playing in hijab, said Maaria Mozaffar, director of advocacy and policy at the Illinois Muslim Civic Coalition, which helped draft the legislation.
“We believe that this is a process of providing dignity back to the athletes where it’s much more about their skill and not about what they wear,” Mozaffar said about creating the law.
Saiyada and her teammate Sadia Hussain, both 15, finished their first season playing volleyball in early October. Both girls are Muslim, they said, and have worn hijab for nearly 10 years. When they signed up to play volleyball, they knew they would don long-sleeve shirts under their short-sleeve team jerseys and leggings or sweatpants instead of shorts because of their religion.
Hussain recalled an instance during the season where she forget to bring a black hijab and was wearing a gray one. She said she felt a “sense of panic because I was terrified that I’m not going to be able to play because I had a gray hijab on.”
She said Saiyada ended up lending her an extra black hijab. While it’s not clear she would have been in violation of the color code, she said having to change her hijab because was worried about it was “a little frustrating.”
But Saiyada’s situation isn’t so black and white, according to Craig Anderson, executive director of the Illinois High School Association.
A rule from the National Federation of State High School volleyball uniform rule book says that “any visible garment worn underneath the uniform top shall be unadorned and of a single, solid color that is similar in color to the predominant color of the uniform top.” The rule helps prevent athletes on opposing teams from wearing similar colors, he said, which could make it difficult for a referee to make accurate calls.
The language for the state’s Inclusive Athletic Attire Act does not include whether the modification has to be a specific color. According to the act, any modification “must not interfere with the movement of the student or pose a safety hazard to the students or to other athletes or players.”
Referees have to renew their license in each sport every year by retaking the rules exam. They are also required to view an online rules presentation for the sports every year, according to the IHSA website.
Anderson said the “long-standing” NFHS rules are reviewed annually, and each state association also has permission to submit potential rule changes
“I know uniform rules across all sports have been reviewed and modified over history, but I think the foundation is to try to create some guidance for our schools so that there’s a general basis for how students will look when they go participate and it’s not people showing up in whatever they want,” Anderson said. “I think it’s also just to protect the integrity of competition. The uniform rules do have context to create fairness in the level of play and give guidance so there’s no confusion.”
Freshman volleyball coach Jason Curry, 29, said that although the team jersey is black, it has white lettering, so in his opinion, a white shirt underneath should not have been a problem. He also expressed confusion over why one referee let Saiyada compete with a white undershirt on one week but another referee told him she was “out of uniform” the next.
“As a coach, it really upset me that you put this child through a very traumatic experience,” Curry said. “I felt that, you know, the color was not distracting from the game at all. Culturally, religiously, she has to be covered, right, and a white undershirt was completely appropriate.”
He said Saiyada would have started on the court for the team that day. Having her sit out after “she gave up her Saturday” to be at the game was “very frustrating” for not just Saiyada, but Curry and the team as well, he said.
Anderson said that sometimes referee officials are forced to make judgment calls.
“There’s always a black-and-white rule, and then of course, some gray area they have to officiate,” he said. “When it comes to uniforms, it’s generally pretty black and white, but there could always be some discretion of an official to determine how close in proximity the color of the sleeves is to the jersey and offer a little grace.”
The state’s Inclusive Athletic Attire Act was the first of its kind in the country, Mozaffar said, when it was enacted in September 2021, but other states have passed similar legislation since. Earlier this year, Ohio signed into law its own version, which gives students the right to wear religious apparel without needing to get a waiver or permission in advance. Maryland followed suit shortly after with its own law allowing student-athletes to modify uniforms to fit their individual requirements or preferences.
Before the law, a student-athlete would have to get a waiver to achieve the same result and go through a process of talking to their coach, writing a letter and more, which Mozaffar described as a “cumbersome” ordeal.
“We had actually seen cases where people were disqualified because they were not meeting the process of waivers properly like there was a miscommunication with the coach or there’s a miscommunication with the team, which is just a process we didn’t want altogether,” Mozaffar said. “It’s really helped student-athletes, and what we’re very excited about is to see so many student-athletes from so many diverse communities now be able to participate, be part of the school identity, and also Illinois gets to enjoy athletes that they didn’t know existed before.”
Anderson said the organization had been approving “nearly every accommodation request” in the area before the law took effect.
“I believe the new law has helped better educate our schools on the allowances their student-athletes are provided,” Anderson said. “It’s been a good thing for students to just know that there’s a comfort level for them to participate in the athletic attire that they’re most comfortable and it’s just been fortunate, I think, that we’ve been able to navigate this for our students to really have that comfort when they go compete and represent their schools.”
Mozaffar said the coalition was holding meetings with local organizations within the Muslim community to create a legislative agenda when the issue of sports uniforms arose. The team then learned the problem wasn’t unique to the Muslim community but extended to other faiths and communities that wanted to change the “pressure of having to fit into a strict uniform code.”
The topic made it onto the coalition’s 2021 legislative agenda, and they worked with legislators, the key player being state Rep. Will Guzzardi, a Democrat from Chicago, Mozaffar said. The law was passed unanimously through both committee and the General Assembly.
Hussain also said schools should have the funding to be able to provide long-sleeve and long-pants options to their athletes because having to play in layers was also “really tough” for them.
“We should get the accommodations needed for us to play by the rules so we can perform to our best,” Saiyada said. “We had to take care of these certain criteria that they give us, but it’s a little annoying that it’s all financially our responsibility.”
Anderson said there are schools that offer more options to their athletes, so it’s “definitely possible” for any school to do so, but it’s up to the school. The Inclusive Athletic Attire Act also includes language saying the school modifications are at the expense of the student, but the school can provide if they choose.
Curry said his expectation is that referees are all trained to be “culturally aware and sensitive” to young athletes’ preferences and comfortability.
“I am a socially conscious person and someone who watches sports, so when things like white shirts are a problem, that is very weird to me,” Curry said. “Maybe I need to do better as a coach to educate myself on all the rules, but I also think it’s a commonsense thing that people have to make.”
Once Saiyada learned that wearing white underneath the jersey was against the rules, she said she stopped wearing white so she could play every other game.
“It was disappointing for her and for me,” her teammate Hussain said, “because I think she definitely had the capability to perform her best, and the color of her sleeves was a barrier.”
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November 29, 2022 at 05:23AM