July 26, 2014

FIBA to review basketball headgear rule following pressure from BFI, #LetSikhsPlay, & more

Let's take a moment to step back, take a deep breath, and marvel at the power of the internet. Less than two weeks ago, I wrote a post detailing how the governing body of basketball in the planet - FIBA - forced a rule upon India's Sikh basketball players to play at the FIBA Asia Cup in China without their turbans. While the players complied with the rules and played for the pride of their country, there was worldwide outrage, led by significant pressure by followers on the internet and specifically social media.

And the pressure from all angles jabbing at FIBA has finally brought some real results: earlier today, FIBA announced that their Central Board will soon review their 'no headgear' rule after a formal request to do so by the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) at the FIBA Asia Congress a few days ago.

This is the first step to what detractors of the rule hope will eventually lead FIBA to allow players like Sikhs (who wear turbans) or muslims (who wear hijab) to keep their headgear on while playing basketball in FIBA/international basketball competitions. A FIBA press release today announced that "FIBA's Central Board, which is ultimately responsible for changes to the Official Basketball Rules, will review these requests and decide how to proceed in the best interest of the sport and of its 214 members." The Central Board is set to meet at the FIBA World Congress on 28-29 August in Sevilla, Spain during the FIBA Basketball World Cup.

FIBA's decision to review this rule will be seen as the appropriate step by many, including the BFI, who made the formal request to FIBA. The Sikh community and the thousands of others who support their cause - led by SALDEF and others - did an immense job at promoting '#LetSikhsPlay' on social media to protest against FIBA and asked for the international basketball federation to show the same request that the NCAA and other basketball bodies around the world have shown to players who wear turbans or other headgear for various reasons. India's Sports Minister Sarbananda Sonowal weighed in on the controversy, declaring that he was "shocked and outraged" at FIBA as he extended his protest to the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Even United States congressmen got into the act and asked FIBA for a change in what they called a 'discriminatory policy'.

But most importantly, this review will come as a relief to players like Amjyot Singh and Amrit Pal Singh, two of India's most talented basketball players who were instrumental in the team's wondrous performances at the FIBA Asia Cup in Wuhan. Until two weeks ago, both players had freely played with their turbans on in FIBA tournaments and other basketball competitions. As Sikhs who hold the symbolism of their headgear very closely to their identity and their religion, they had both expressed sadness at the implementation of FIBA's rule. And yet, they played on after being forced to tie their hair back by rubber bands or other hair bands through the course of the tournament.

The 214 members of FIBA now hold the key to a sensible and happy end to this conflict. Basketball shouldn't discriminate on basis of harmless cultural insignia like turbans or hijab. And the end of the 'No Headgear' rule will bring smiles to the faces of not just India's Sikh players but also Muslim players who have clashed with FIBA in the past over this.

Article 4.4.2 of FIBA’s Official Basketball Rules states, "Players shall not wear equipment (objects) that may cause injury to other players," a list that includes headgear like turbans, hijab, etc. FIBA claims that the rule was made to observe safety on the basketball court and uniformity of equipment within a team and currently, players are only allowed to wear headbands no wider than five centimetres in order to hold back hair and sweat.

Bizzarely, this is a 10-year-old rule, but FIBA only decided to start strictly implementing it recently and it was only imposed on Team India two weeks ago. I first reported the story on this blog days after India's first game against Japan at the FIBA Asia Cup when Amjyot and Amrit Pal were forced to take off their turbans and wait a couple of minutes after the game began before checking in. India's Head Coach Scott Flemming claimed that a misunderstanding with FIBA officials led to this last minute disturbance, which of course had adverse effects on the concentration levels of the entire squad.

While #LetSikhsPlay quickly got the wheels of protest in motion, India's own mainstream news factory typically reacted much later to this news, after India had returned back home from the tournament in China. The reaction eventually led to BFI's formal request against this ruling, but looking ahead, it will be the online pressure and the power of the internet directed that FIBA itself that could perhaps convince the ruling basketball body's voting members to rescind or edit Article 4.4.2.

The saddest part of this whole controversy? The outrage has pretty much overshadowed Team India's brilliant play at the FIBA Asia Cup, where - led by Coach Flemming - they defeated China for the first time in history in perhaps their greatest ever basketball victory and gave a tougher than expected fight to Asian giants such as Iran and the Philippines. The Indian media reacted to the negative news much fervently than the positive one. And unfortunately, Indian basketball's shining moment was portrayed by our mainstream media more as a silver lining around the dark cloud of FIBA controversy rather than the other way around.

The fight isn't over yet, but at least, there are positive signs that FIBA are willing to listen to the outcry of Indian, Sikh, and everyone else who supports this cause around the world. Hopefully, common-sense prevails over rudimentary thinking, and we can get back to basketball instead of worrying about whether a little bit of cloth covering someone's head could ever be a "threat". Especially if that bit of cloth has such a deep-lying significance to the culture and religion of the targeted individuals. The rest of the world is catching up with multiculturalism; it's time FIBA did, too.

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