Nicole Pyles was standing near home plate with a bat on her shoulder last month when one of the umpires stopped her high school softball game.
“I felt embarrassed and I most definitely felt disrespected,” Pyles told the Southern Coalition for Social Justice this week. “I just felt like the world was staring at me. Why me?”
Now, Pyles and her family, who described the incident as discriminatory, are asking her school district and the North Carolina High School Athletic Association to enact policies ensuring no other Black student-athlete faces similar repercussions because of their hair.
The NCHSAA has sided with the umpire, citing a rule that forbids the use of plastic visors, bandannas and hair beads. “This is not a new rule, and when the violation was noticed by an umpire, the proper determination of illegal equipment was verified,” NCHSAA Commissioner Que Tucker told WRAL.
Durham Public Schools, which does not prohibit hair beads in the classroom, condemned the “culturally biased and problematic” ban on hair beads and called for the association to revise its hair policy.
“DPS supports our student-athletes and their right to self-expression in a manner befitting their culture, consistent with safety in training and competition,” the district said in a statement. “We support our student, Nicole Pyles, and believe this rule should be amended.”
Pyles is the latest Black student-athlete to claim discrimination during a game because of rules over hair. In 2018, a White referee ordered a Black New Jersey wrestler to cut his dreadlocks if he wanted to participate in the match, an incident that sparked a state probe and led to a two-year ban for the referee.
On April 19, Pyles, who had worn similar hairstyles in previous games, played the first inning for her Hillside High School team against Jordan High School without any issues, she said.
Near the top of the second inning, one of the opposing coaches, whom Pyles described as a White man, approached an umpire to report that her hair was covering the No. 6 on the back of her white-and-blue jersey, a violation of the rules. Photos from the game, though, show the teenager’s braids barely reaching her shoulders and not obscuring her number.
To address that complaint, Pyles said, her team members wrapped the bottom of her hair, which had the beads, and tucked it inside her jersey. Pyles then walked to the home plate and began practicing her swing when the umpires told her coach that the beads had to go.
“That’s when the [umpire] basically said to my coach, either I take the beads out or I can’t play,” Pyles said.
Pyles wanted to keep playing, so some of her teammates began removing beads. When some wouldn’t budge, a teammate yelled, “Does anybody have scissors?” before they cut the rest of the beads.
“At this point, I feel humiliated,” Pyles told the News & Observer, adding that she could hear parents and other attendees gasping from the bleachers as her teammates chopped her braids.
Pyles told the paper that she’s not opposed to rules that prohibit hair clips and other accessories, but said the policy on hair beads should be repealed because it discriminates against Black athletes.
“Ask yourself, who else wears beads?” Pyles told the News & Observer. “Who else wears things that hang off braids in your hair? Only Black girls.”
Pyles is also demanding an apology from the other team’s coaches, the umpires and the NCHSAA supervisor.
“Fix the policies for the Black children so they won’t be discriminated against,” her father, Julius Pyles, who was not present at the game, told the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.
The NCHSAA said Pyles’s coach had the responsibility to make sure she was complying with the rules before the game started.
“We empathize with the student athlete and her experience,” Tucker, the commissioner, said in a statement, according to WRAL. “It is truly unfortunate, as we believe this situation should never have occurred. The NCHSAA expectation is that coaches will know the playing rules and ensure that their players are also aware of them before participating in any athletic contest.”
The district said an investigation did not find “involvement by any Jordan High staff member bringing the violation” to the umpire’s attention. It also vowed to work with the NCHSAA to review policies “that on the surface seem fair but are culturally biased and inappropriate.”
Pyles, who continued playing until the end of the game after her beads were cut off, said she wants others in her situation to speak up.
“Be strong in your own shoes and stand for what’s right,” Pyles told WRAL.