With the game out of reach and the season sputtering to a finish, Watkins Mill Coach Donita Adams made sure every girl played in the team’s first region final appearance. But Adams left Je’Nan Hayes sitting on the bench. She had no other choice.
“I didn’t even want to look down at Je’Nan in that moment,” Adams said. “I had not yet told her that she wasn’t allowed to play in the game because of her headscarf.”
The game was at Oxon Hill High in Prince George’s County on March 3. Hayes, a junior in her first season playing organized basketball, was not allowed to play because she wears a hijab as part of her Muslim faith. Before the contest, the head official informed Adams of a rarely enforced rule requiring “documented evidence” that Hayes needs to cover her head for religious reasons.
“I felt discriminated against, and I didn’t feel good at all,” Hayes said. “If it was some reason like my shirt wasn’t the right color or whatever, then I’d be like, ‘Okay.’ But because of my religion it took it to a whole different level, and I just felt that it was not right at all.”
The news that Hayes wasn’t allowed to play because of her hijab was first reported by The Current, Watkins Mill’s student newspaper.
Hayes played in the first 24 games of the season without anyone telling her or her coach about the rule, which appears in the National Federation of State High School Associations rule book and is regulated at the state level.
After learning of the head official’s decision, Adams talked with Watkins Mill Athletic Director Reggie Spears to see whether it could be reversed before tip-off. It couldn’t, so Adams, who was not aware of the rule before arriving at Oxon Hill that night, decided not to tell Hayes until after the game.
Everything had felt normal to Hayes — she warmed up with her team, stood for the national anthem and then retreated to the bench — until late in the fourth quarter. Watkins Mill had little chance of coming back, and the Wolverines’ reserves — the ones Hayes normally enters the game with — were all on the court.
After Oxon Hill won, 51-36, Adams pulled Hayes aside. She apologized to Hayes and explained she did not play because of her hijab. Hayes immediately broke down in tears.
The referees were correct that Hayes technically needs a state-signed waiver, but administrators from Prince George’s County and the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association said they disagreed with the decision to not let her play.
“The officials of the game there took a strict interpretation of the rule, instead of the spirit of the rule,” said Andy Warner, executive director of the MPSSAA, Maryland’s governing body for high school athletics.
“Does this fundamentally alter the game? Does this create an inherent risk? Does it create a competitive advantage?” Warner continued. “It doesn’t do any of those things, so why are we denying what would be approved if they were to put a simple request into the association?”
Earl Hawkins, Prince George’s County’s athletic director, also thought the referees made a mistake in not letting Hayes participate in the game.
“Everybody has apologized and [understands] that, if the situation happens again, we’ll deal with it in a better fashion, much better fashion,” Hawkins said.
The NFHS rule book disallows “decorations and headwear” unless it fits specific requirements. Theresia Wynns, director of the NFHS’s Officials Association, said the rule is in place as a safety precaution and so that state officials are aware of any equipment not included in a standard uniform.
However, one exception to the rule states: “For religious reasons — In the event there is documented evidence provided to the state association that a participant may not expose his/her uncovered head, the state association may approve a covering or wrap which is not abrasive, hard or dangerous to any other player and which is attached in such a way it is highly unlikely it will come off during play.”
Warner said the MPSSAA would have immediately approved a waiver for Hayes’s hijab, and added that it was a “disservice” that no referees had alerted Watkins Mill of the rule during the regular season. He also thought the refs at Oxon Hill should have educated Watkins Mill on the rule and “no doubt” allowed Hayes to play.
That said, Warner, Hayes, Adams and Carlitta Foster-Hayes, Je’Nan’s mother, all agree that a religious headscarf should not require documentation.
“It’s almost like you’re singling out different religions, you know?” Foster-Hayes said. “With the way the rule is, you have to take an extra step to play because you’re Muslim.”
Foster-Hayes said she and Warner are working on filing a formal rule change proposal to the NFHS. On Monday, the Council on American-Islamic Relations said it is working with the MPSSAA on a potential rule change and possible diversity training for state athletic officials.
Both the MPSSAA and the referees association have apologized to Hayes and her family, Foster-Hayes said, and Hayes is now fixed on having the situation lead to change.
“I just want to be an advocate for boys or girls, anybody who is trying out for a sport and has a religion and they feel like their faith can interfere with the way they play sports,” Hayes said. “It shouldn’t be that way. And because of rules like these, I feel like it makes people scared or turn away from sports, and I don’t want that to happen to anybody else in the future.”
Hayes, for starters, has not been deterred from participating.
“I know definitely next year I’m going to try out for basketball,” she said. “It does not stop here.”