Muslim athletes and their clothing

female muslim runnerFor being on page A1 in The Washington Post, the article earlier this week on a high school athlete disqualified from a track meet for wearing clothing intended to be modest for religious reasons is missing a few things. Fortunately, we have the Internet, and the captions on the online photo gallery fill in a few details that were lacking from the story.

The reporter is fairly sympathetic toward the talented athlete, and it is hard not to feel for the senior who is hardly gaining any competitive advantages by trying to adhere to the principles of her faith by wearing more clothing:

Juashaunna Kelly, a Theodore Roosevelt High School senior who has the fastest mile and two-mile times of any girls’ runner in the District this winter, was disqualified from Saturday’s Montgomery Invitational indoor track and field meet after officials said her Muslim clothing violated national competition rules.

Kelly was wearing the same uniform she has worn for the past three seasons while running for Theodore Roosevelt’s cross-country and track teams: a custom-made, one-piece blue and orange unitard that covers her head, arms, torso and legs. On top of the unitard, Kelly wore the same orange and blue T-shirt and shorts as her teammates.

The outfit allows her to compete while complying with her Muslim faith, which forbids displaying any skin other than her face and hands.

A friend of mine who has successfully competed in USATF, NCAA, and IHSAA track and field events and has spent time as a high school and college track coach told me that standards such as these for uniforms are necessary to keep “all things equal” on the track. That said, there is certainly no advantage to wearing extra clothing. The fact that she went to such great lengths to have the uniform custom made to conform to her school colors shows that she wasn’t trying to cause any type of scene, or to stand out in any particular way.

Unfortunately, the story relies only on the director of the track meet to explain why Kelly was disqualified. The reporter could have looked to the people who make the rules and not just the person enforcing them. A simple reason that if Kelly is given special treatment, other kids who want to wear cross necklaces and other religious paraphernalia would expect similar treatment. The question that should be asked then is whether or not an exception to this rule should be created for athletes with religious objections such as Kelly.

Religious beliefs and sports have made for great stories that are worth careful exploration. Anybody remember the movie Chariots of Fire?

Not only does Kelly wear this special uniform, she does not eat or drink during the five-hour long track meets during the month of Ramadan, while those she competes against are able to eat what they need to keep their energy up for 3-plus mile long races. For some reason, the story neglects to mention this, but it comes up in the photo gallery captions:

Cross-country meets can last five hours or more, although the races themselves take approximately 25 minutes or less. To stave off dehydration before and after exhausting five-kilometer (roughly 3.1 miles) races, athletes usually chug water and sports drinks by the liter and devour granola bars, bananas and cookies. For Kelly, that would be a betrayal.

The Post will likely follow up on this story, and hopefully they can dig into whether or not it would be fair to grant Kelly and other athletes like her an exception for their religious beliefs and practices.

A great reference piece on this topic is this article Women’s Sports Foundation Web site. The article raises a great point by pointing out that not all Muslim female athletes have the same religious standards for what they wear. While fundamentalists condemn successful athletes for wearing shorts in front of men, others compete in the Olympics without wearing the hijab. Speaking of the Olympics, hopefully reporters will pick up on this story this summer because it is bound to be an issue.

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  • Jerry

    A simple reason that if Kelly is given special treatment, other kids who want to wear cross necklaces and other religious paraphernalia would expect similar treatment. The question that should be asked then is whether or not an exception to this rule should be created for athletes with religious objections such as Kelly.

    The real question is whether or not allowing more diversity would create a competitive advantage for the athlete. If the answer is that it does not or in fact disadvantages the athlete, then why not allow it.

    But in looking at the picture, her top does not appear to match that of other teammates – there appears to be words which I can’t make out. So I wish there had been a clear picture what we could have compared. Maybe there’s something beyond the claimed Muslim-dress issue.

  • Brian Walden

    As one of the other heats was held, two meet officials signaled to Kelly and asked her about her uniform. Meet director Tom Rogers said Kelly’s uniform violated rules of the National Federation of State High School Associations, which sanctioned the event, by not being “a single-solid color and unadorned, except for a single school name or insignia no more than 2 1/4 inches.”

    The article sites this as the rule her uniform broke. It sounds like the problems wasn’t the suit she was wearing but the colors. This rule seems fair enough to me and allows her to wear a uniform that conforms to her religious beliefs. When I played CYO basketball we had similar rules. If you wore a shirt under your jersey it had to be a solid color with no designs showing. It had to match the jersey (i.e. can’t wear a white t-shirt with a colored jersey) and not have any rips or loose threads from torn off sleeves. This was strictly enforced and if you were in violation the refs would either make you fix it or take it off.

    The problem with the track meet is the way the that the rule was enforced. Apparently she competed in the same competition a year ago and no one said a thing. Given that she didn’t have the option to simply take it off without violating her religious beliefs, I don’t see why they couldn’t make a one-time exception and do a better job of making sure everyone knows the rules next year. It seems that even officials and coaches were unclear of the rules if they never said anything to her in the past.

    I also wonder what her team wears for cold weather events that they didn’t have any long-sleeved gear that met the regulations. Maybe the officials would have been more lenient if the only thing that was in violation was her hood and not her entire uniform.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Meet director Tom Rogers said Kelly’s uniform violated rules of the National Federation of State High School Associations, which sanctioned the event, by not being “a single-solid color and unadorned, except for a single school name or insignia no more than 2 1/4 inches.”

    I have a hard time believing that Rogers can quote such an obscure rule from memory. It seems much more reasonable that he had prepared in advance for this episode.

    Rogers said he made three public address announcements prior to Kelly’s disqualification requesting that Roosevelt Coach Tony Bowden meet with him.

    It strains credulity to believe that Rogers or another official happened to notice Kelly’s uniform, found a rule book, found an applicable rule, and then made a quick decision to disqualify Kelly. This seems premeditated.

    Kelly has worn the same uniform for three years without any questions, including the 800- and 1,600-meter races at last year’s Montgomery Invitational, at which Rogers also was the director.

    “She ran in the same exact meet last year,” Sarah Kelly said. “There was nothing said. No one has ever said anything to her.”

    Rogers said: “We run over 2,000 athletes in this meet. Most likely an official missed her uniform [last year] and a call wasn’t made.”

    That’s so weak. Same uniform both years, same number of athletes both years, but this year the officials were on the ball? Give me a break. Somebody complained in advance but, rather than giving Kelly sufficient warning before the meet, the officials made a big scene at the meet. Sad.

    Rogers said he knew Kelly was wearing the uniform for religious reasons and that he offered her several options to conform to the rules of the meet while still respecting her faith, including placing a plain T-shirt over her unitard and then wearing her team uniform over it.

    “Every sport has uniform rules. It has nothing to do with religious discrimination,” Rogers said. “They were provided with several options that would have allowed her to run without taking off her head covering.”

    Sarah Kelly said that was not the case. She said meet referees made several demands of her daughter before Rogers made his decision.

    “First, they said she had to take her hood off,” Sarah Kelly said. “Then, they said she can’t have anything with logos displayed. Then, they said she had to turn it inside out. When I told them that there weren’t any logos on it, they said she had to put a plain white T-shirt on over it.”

    Bowden said: “It never started off about color [of her uniform]. It started with her head wear.

    “It wasn’t a problem last year, and it’s a problem this year? Make me understand why.”

    Excellent quotes.

    The reporter could have looked to the people who make the rules and not just the person enforcing them.

    Tracking down the people who wrote the rule book for the National Federation of State High School Associations and getting their rationale for a certain rule would be, in my opinion, next to impossible. The responsibility rests firmly with the meet director. His interpretation is questionable, and he did a poor job of defending his actions.

  • ahem

    What I always wonder is how much better and faster would these athletes be if they weren’t hampered by their clothing?

    It would seem on the surface that they are not affected if they win races or are able to endure through the heat to finish a game. But what about their potential? I will never be convinced that competing in clothing which is a physical handicap does not prevent these athletes from realizing their full potential.

    I wonder if it isn’t a matter of luck that this girl hasn’t been affected by defying the hard facts of science which mandate that a body which sweats in the heat must be hydrated. Or is someone going to say now that hydration is not in fact necessary? I hope that she never finds out the hard way by causing herself harm.

    Finally, this girl could be something of an exception, perhaps freakishly so if she is able to run and win without hydration. What about other girls not so gifted but who might win or realize their potential if they did not wear all that garb.

    I am troubled by the message that these athletes are trying to send ie that wearing this kind of get up is not a problem. There are so many problems with it that it is hard to know where to start, most of them moral as opposed to physical.

    So those are my main problems with the idea in general. I sympathize with this girl and feel for her disappointment. I am of the opinion that girls who insist on this kind of thing not be barred from competing simply because of some random dislike or fear of Muslims. But I think there are practical and perhaps moral reasons for banning these kinds of costumes. And what about the proselytization that is inherant in the hijab? The hijab is the equivalent of someone pushing a Christian tract at people on the street corner and it is promoted to Muslim women as such, as a way to spread Islam. This girl is a walking billboard promoting the Islamic faith.

    I hate to see a talented kid be barred because of their devotion to their faith, but who in this world gets to have it all anyway? Don’t we all at some point have to face disappointment and hard choices. Don’t we all have to suffer and yes sacrifice for our religion? I wonder if bending the rules or rewriting them to accomodate these atheletes doesn’t allow us, and them, to avoid these issues and any really thoughful discussion of the full implications and meaning of the hijab?

    As Christians we should be concerned. While we have nothing against some moderate form of modesty, it is the extremity of the Islamic concept of it that we should have a problem with and we shouldn’t be afraid to speak up about it. Extremity, by its very nature, causes harm. Harm is harm. It doesnt matter if that harm is subtle or obvious. It shouldn’t be overlooked because someone sincerely believes in what they are doing.

  • Ivan Wolfe

    The responsibility rests firmly with the meet director. His interpretation is questionable, and he did a poor job of defending his actions.

    That about sums it up. There may be valid reasons for the whole thing, but the way it played out was, at the very least, a very bad PR move (as it played out more like an ambush than a rules dispute).

  • MJBubba

    I have been a little curious for years at why Christians do not object to their schools putting their girls in immodest uniforms. When I have asked, I have generally been told that “the girls picked it out themselves” and “they can run faster in [skimpy, close-fitting] uniforms.” Even if both are true, do their parents approve?
    I may be a complete throwback, but Biblical exhortations to modesty sound similar to Koranic verses; it is the Imam’s interpretation of the Hadith that makes the details different.

  • bob

    Given how amazingly cattle-like most athletes get at “high” levels of competition, this article surprises me. Look at any broadcast of Olympics or such. Everyone wears the latest most cutting-edge outfit that will assure them the 0.002 second advantage. Exactly the same outfits. What I haven’t seen mentioned is the possibility that other athletes will start wearing the same running togs she has; it SEEMS TO WORK. If the Burkha got one good times in the 440, I promise there’d be a lot of yardage sold the next day.

  • steve wintermute

    Thought provoking story, which is what good journalism is supposed to do. Seems from the story that the official(s) were gunning for her this year. Perhaps because she’s a faster runner than most non-Moslems, even giving them an edge by runing in her very non-aerodynamic attire? It’s too bad that most newspaper readers across the country never saw this article because their local media never carried it.

  • Craig

    The picture can’t be of the girl in question. It is obvious that neither of the two women in the photo are high school athletes, and the muslim woman’s uniform says “Bahrain,” which leads me to believe that this particular woman is representing Bahrain in some kind of international competition, and not a high school. Is there not a better picture to accompany this article?

  • fran

    Wow. Where do I start on this? Perhaps by saying that this story is a pack of lies?

    Dpulliam is way off-base to say that it relied on the meet director for quotes. The reporters doing this story barely spoke to the meet director. And in actuality, the meet director never talked to Ms. Kelly at all during this whole incident — he spoke only with her mother who refused to listen to the options he was presenting to allow Ms. Kelly to run. The coach meanwhile was punching out the official who did not choose to press charges (why, I don’t know … and, hmmm, wonder why THAT little detail didn’t make the paper?) The mother and the coach ran immediately to the reporter from the Washington Post with the religious discrimination charges –this reporter (Carl Little) spoke with the meet director and official and decided there was no story. Mom and Coach, determined to prevail, then went farther and found a reporter who would cover the story — one who consulted only fleetingly with the other side (because the sensationalism would have been squashed had the truth actually been told). I will attempt to address a couple of your points:

    First – Craig is correct — that photo at the top of this column is not of Juashaunna Kelly and that’s not at all the kind of uniform she was wearing.

    Second – Dpulliam: “Unfortunately, the story relies only on the director of the track meet to explain why Kelly was disqualified.” Kelly was NEVER DISQUALIFIED. She was respectfully offered options to modify her uniform without sublimating her faith. She chose not to compromise (in her words, “… by then I was crying and I didn’t feel like it.”) No disqualification was necessary. Another poor piece of reporting.

    Third – you are mixing metaphors: this was an indoor track meet during which she may run two races (each lasting less than ten minutes). Cross country season (and Ramadan) ended back in the fall. Hence why the story neglected to mention it.

    Fourth – Dpulliam and Ivan Wolfe: The responsibility for this decision rests with the meet official, not the meet director. In this case, the Meet Official is highly trained and one of the best, serving at all the high-level track events such as this one.

    Fifth – Steve Wintermute: This article is nothing like an example of good journalism – hopefully the truth will come out in the next couple of weeks. I hope it gets the same kind of exposure that this fabricated piece of *@$# got. (Despite your comment that local media didn’t cover it, this story went through the AP to countries around the world, not to mention in MANY local newspapers and other media, slandering two good men with it).

    And FINALLY — the inference that this mythical disqualification was a premeditated and orchestrated effort to keep Ms. Kelly from competing is not only irresponsible, it’s ludicrous. No one wants to see a boring track event — the whole point of inviting highly competitive athletes to this Invitational is to provide an exciting meet with records being smashed as often as possible. Ms. Kelly is indeed a good runner and is the fastest in Washington, D.C. The fact remains that there were many runners in attendance at the meet who could easily beat her. No premeditation (even if anyone were stupid enough to consider it) was necessary.

    For your reference, here’s the official response by the NFHS, the rules-making body which, Chris Bolinger, is not hard to find at all:

    NFHS Responds to Maryland Track Situation
    Contact: Becky Oakes
    INDIANAPOLIS, IN (January 17, 2008) – Last Saturday, Juashuanna Kelly, a runner on the girls track team at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Washington, D.C., elected not to compete in the Montgomery Invitational indoor track and field meet in Maryland after meet officials advised her that she would need to replace her undergarment because it violated track and field playing rules published by the National Federation of State High School Association (NFHS).
    The NFHS issues the following statement regarding this incident:
    “The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), the national leadership organization for high school sports and fine arts activities, writes playing rules in 17 sports for boys and girls competition at the high school level, including track and field.
    “Rule 4-3-1-d of the NFHS Track and Field and Cross Country Rules Book states that ‘Any visible garment(s) worn underneath the uniform top or bottom shall be a single, solid color and unadorned except for 1) a single school name or insignia no more than 2¼ square inches with no dimension more than 2¼ inches and 2) a single, visible manufacturer’s logo as per NFHS rules.’
    “Using preventive officiating, meet officials at the Montgomery Invitational checked uniforms prior to the events to make sure they complied with NFHS uniform rules. Since Kelly’s one-piece undergarment was multi-colored (blue, orange, white), it was in violation of the uniform rules. The meet officials did not disqualify Kelly; they informed her she would have to replace the multi-colored undergarment with a single-colored undergarment, an option which she declined and, thus, did not compete.
    “The head covering, which was a part of Kelly’s one-piece undergarment, nor the length of the undergarment were in violation of NFHS rules. She could have worn the same style of undergarment, with a head covering, as long as the undergarment was one color throughout the entire piece of clothing. The NFHS track uniform rule was put in place for consistency across the board and for ease in identifying runners at the finish line. Multi-colored undergarments cause greater identification problems for track officials.
    “The track uniform is a point of emphasis by the NFHS this year in an effort to have more consistent and widespread enforcement of the rule. Because of her Muslim faith, there were reports that her uniform undergarment was ruled unacceptable on religious grounds. While Kelly’s faith requires her to cover all parts of the body except her hands and face, a single-colored undergarment with a hood would have been acceptable both from an NFHS rules standpoint as well as meeting the requirements of her Muslim faith.