Girls basketball player benched for wearing hijab in playoff game


Sarah Elbeshbishi

Junior Je’Nan Hayes was not allowed to play during the regional semifinal basketball game because referees said her hijab was not properly documented with the state.

Sarah Elbeshbishi

A Watkins Mill High School junior was unable to play in the girls basketball 3A South Regional Final because she was wearing a hijab and a referee invoked a seldom-enforced rule about documentation for religious headgear.  

On March 3, the Watkins Mill girls basketball team arrived at Oxon Hill High School in Prince George’s County to play them in the regional finals. Girls basketball coach Donita Adams was approached by an official stating that junior Je’Nan Hayes was not able to play without the correct paperwork from the state due to her hijab.  

“I overheard one of my assistant coaches…saying something like ‘you know Je’Nan, I don’t know if you’ll be able to play today’ and I was…confused,” Hayes said. “After the game…[my] coach…said ‘Je’Nan, I’m sorry that you couldn’t play today, but supposedly we didn’t have a paper…saying that you can wear your scarf while being in the game.’”

Under the rules of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association any type of headpiece or accessory worn by a player must be approved by the state with a waiver. This is to prevent players from wearing anything unrelated to the team and uniform.   

“It is a ruling because you have so many athletes wanting to wear accessories…[and those] things are prohibited…[so the] rule was in place to curb all these requests,” athletic director Reggie Spears said. “But there are some safeguards, for traditional, mainstream religious purposes, Muslim, Jewish, Christian,…we know what that wardrobe is for so that wouldn’t be [the] case.”

Prior to the regional finals, the team played in two other playoff games and 22 games during their regular season, but not once in the 24 games played had an official enforced this ruling on Hayes. “The other piece is that the team went through the whole regular season…without any officials making reference to this rule…[but] when we get to the…biggest game of the season so far…they make this rule,” Spears said.  

“After that, my mom and dad tracked down the ref that had made the call on me [and] he showed in the state book that it’s true you have to have a letter from the state saying that I’m able to wear my scarf and play in the game,” Hayes added. “Because we didn’t have a paper, I couldn’t play.”

Spears, Adams, and Montgomery County Public Schools Athletics Specialist Jeff Sullivan, all attempted to reason with the referee in order to allow Hayes some playing time during the game, especially with Oxon Hill’s leading score.

“Near the end of the quarter, Oxon Hill was kind of up favorably and coach Adams was letting some of the reserves get playing time to get that experience, which is good experience to have especially at that level, [but] Je’Nan [was]…denied an opportunity to play,” Spears added.

Since the incident, Hayes has been in contact with others who have experienced and are experiencing similar situations. “I’ve talked to one person from Atlanta…he coaches elementary school kids and he has a girl on his team who is also hijabi and they got a letter and…showed the ref…but…she still sat out the whole entire game,” Hayes added.

Hayes plans to contact state and county officials in order to try and remove this ruling from school athletics. She hopes to fully remove the required waiver for religious apparel during sports. Ironically this coincides with the release of Nike’s new line of “Pro Hijabs’ for Muslim athletes.

“As time goes by, we’re getting more modern and we’re changing and we’re out here. We exist. Muslim athletes exist,” Hayes said. “I hope to spread to other girls and people who are scared to try out for sports or just to do anything in general because of their religion [that] it should not have to hold you back…if there’s a will there’s a way.”

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