Wednesday, January 16, 2008

When Rules Run Up Against Faith

I saw this article in the Washington Post this morning. Its kind of sad, considering this girl wasn't allowed to compete and potentially qualify for a national level event. Whats also sad is that the race director is my former track coach. Not that he did anything wrong, it just sucks that it involves someone who has done so much good to grow track and field opportunities in the DC area, only to have people question his religious intolerance.

When the Rules Run Up Against Faith

Prep Athlete Wearing Muslim Clothing Disqualified From Track Meet

Many area Muslim cross-country runners are forced to reconcile the commitment to their sport with the commitment to their faith during Ramadan.

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 16, 2008; Page A01

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.

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."

Rogers then told Kelly she was disqualified. Kelly dropped to her knees and began sobbing. Kelly's mother, Sarah, walked down from the bleachers at Prince George's Sports & Learning Complex in Landover and argued with Rogers, but left without coming to an agreement to console her daughter.

"I saw that this isn't getting anywhere, and I wanted to go see her," Sarah Kelly said.

Rogers said he made three public address announcements prior to Kelly's disqualification requesting that Roosevelt Coach Tony Bowden meet with him. Bowden said he didn't hear any announcements.

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."

Juashaunna Kelly, who last week was named the 2007 Gatorade girls' cross-country runner of the year in the District, had her uniform custom-made by a tailor in Apple Valley, Calif., two years ago.

"It's not special," Kelly said. "It doesn't make me perform better."

She said she has been questioned about her uniform before every meet in which she has competed, including Saturday's.

"It was the same as the other meets: They pulled me aside and asked me why am I wearing this," she said. "I said, 'It's because I'm a Muslim.' "

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."

Perhaps the most prominent case in the United States of an athlete competing in Muslim attire occurred in 2004 at the University of South Florida. Women's basketball player Andrea Armstrong said she was asked by her coach to not wear her Muslim head scarf, long sleeves and long pants on the court. The school said it would appeal to the NCAA for a uniform waiver on her behalf, but Armstrong quit the team before a ruling was made.

Kelly, whose 1,600 time of 5 minutes 17.49 seconds and 3,200 time of 12:00.81 are the fastest of any District girl, was hoping to run a time fast enough at the Montgomery Invitational to qualify for the New Balance Collegiate Invitational in New York on Feb. 8-9. Bowden said Roosevelt has no other meets scheduled that would allow her to qualify for the event, which attracts dozens of college recruiters.

"What she needs to do is get some religious documentation saying it's part of her heritage and bring it with her to every meet," said Jim Vollmer, the commissioner of track for Montgomery County public schools.


Anonymous said...

I want to add my voice to those complaining about Miss Kelly's treatment. I competted for Villanova University in the late 1940's in Track and Cross Country. Many runners in the winter wore sweat tops while competing in IC4A events and were not disqualafied.

Audrey said...

Interesting stuff. The pictures of her competing (without eating or drinking) and beating all of her competitors are amazing. I actually really like her racing/running outfit. It's a good idea. I recently saw a special swim outfit for Muslims (and people who have had skin cancer) so they could swim/be lifeguards, etc.

I read this article just after I read an article about a judge who refused to let a woman with no hair following chemotherapy wear a knit cap in his courtroom. The woman left her daughter's hearing in tears without getting to stay for the hearing.

Sometimes the point behind the rules just gets lost in the details. Not everything should be enforced to the letter.

jcadow said...

This ruling by Tom Rogers and other officials is clearly arbitrary. Look at this picture from the banner of NFHS's own website. I presume it's of an athlete in one of their track competitions and clearly violates the 'single emblem', 'single color' rule:

The dude's got a blue square of some kind on his jersey. If they're consistently strict about their rules, why allow this to pass?

Rainmaker said...

Wow...that's pretty sucky on the part of NFHS. Seems bizarre to think that people still think like that - even more so at the HS athletics level. Sad.

It is very cool that she can kick ass though!

Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Tom Rogers did not disqualify Ms. Kelly, nor the the Meet Official. As a matter of fact, Tom Rogers never even spoke to Ms. Kelly ... he spoke only with her mother. No mention is made of the fact that Coach Bowden punched the official when he wouldn't back down in the face of the coach's verbal abuse. Ms. Kelly disqualified herself. Here is the official press release from the NFHS.

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.

Anonymous said...

During the weeks following the January 12 Montgomery Invitational Indoor Track Championships in Largo, Maryland, there were articles relating to the supposed disqualification of a Muslim athlete being posted on both the major and local news media sources as well as on numerous blog sites. These articles, released through the AP by the Washington Post, were full of inconsistencies and inaccuracies and fueled a firestorm of religious discrimination debates, resulting in threats and volumes of hate mail directed at the meet director and officials.
In this January 30 newspaper article, the track officials have finally been allowed to tell their side of the story. I hope you will post this so that they too will have a chance to be heard. Thank you.
Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2008 GAZETTE.NET
Officials: Religion not issue in runner’s exclusion
Incident involving the color of a Muslim girl’s uniform ‘has
been blown out of proportion,’ District administrator says
by Chay Rao and Stephanie Siegel | Staff Writers
Montgomery school officials recently came under fire for being insensitive and even racist after a Muslim girl was told she could not participate in a county track meet because of her uniform, which covered her head, arms and legs in accordance with Muslim customs.
But according to Montgomery County Public Schools officials, religion had nothing to do with the ruling made by an event referee and MCPS employees had no authority to overrule the decision.
‘‘This has been a colossal misunderstanding,” said Kate Harrison, MCPS spokeswoman.
Juashuanna Kelly, a senior at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Washington, was told she could not run in the Jan. 12 Montgomery Invitational indoor track and field meet because the garment she wore did not conform to color standards. Kelly, who is Muslim, was wearing a half-blue and half-orange unitard and head covering under her track uniform.
National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) Indoor Track and Field guidelines state that a runner must wear a single-colored tracksuit under a school jersey — a rule to help identify runners at the finish line in case of close finishes.
‘‘The uniform rules are clearly stated within the rule book. ... If she had worn a solid color, she would have been fine. It was something that could have been avoided early on,” said Becky Oakes, assistant director of NFHS. ‘‘No one wants the athlete DQ’d.”
Kelly, who had worn the special uniform to other meets, including the Montgomery Invitational last year, had been granted a waiver for meets in Washington, according to Allen Chin, director of athletics for District of Columbia Public Schools.
‘‘I feel sorry for the young girl, but frankly, this is something that has been blown out of proportion,” Chin said.
After being told she could participate if she wore a single-colored, long-sleeved T-shirt over the unitard, Kelly and her coach, Tony Bowden, decided to withdraw from the race, Harrison said. Kelly was not disqualified, according to Harrison.
‘‘Religion had no factor in the decision over whether she could participate,” she said.
Bo Meyers, a hired official who is qualified as a ‘‘master referee” by USA Track and Field, the national governing body for track and field sports, made the ruling, Harrison said.
Oakes said Kelly had time to make a change if she wanted. ‘‘Everything was handled properly by meet officials according to the rules,” she said.
However, for many in the Muslim community, barring Kelly from the meet because of the colors of her unitard was the wrong decision.
‘‘The people who made this decision were very insensitive,” said Rashid Makhdoom, a spokesman for the Montgomery County Muslim Council, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting Muslim interests and involvement in the county. ‘‘I think there should be some sensitivity training. There is some feeling that there might be some kind of race [discrimination] involved.”
Harrison said training to make employees aware of cultural and religious differences is already required for school system employees; however, Meyers and other athletic officials are not considered MCPS employees.
One MCPS employee who was criticized for the decision was meet director Tom Rogers, a track and field coach at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda. Rogers was blamed by some for upholding the decision not to let Kelly participate.
‘‘There has been an enormous barrage of angry and even threatening letters,” Harrison said.
But it was never Rogers’ role to say who was allowed to compete, she said.
‘‘His role was as an administrator, to take care of the business aspects,” Harrison said.
Rogers was in charge of making sure the track and equipment was ready, sending out the invitations and hiring the officials, among other duties.
Makhdoom believes an exception could have been made for Kelly.
‘‘She has sacrificed quite a bit of her religious beliefs and compromised to participate,” he said.
‘‘Our religious beliefs are such that women, especially, are not supposed to show the body. I would call it a compromise,” he said of the garment Kelly wore. While it covered her skin, it was still tighter than clothes traditional Muslim women wear, he said.
The perception that Kelly was singled out for her religion is damaging for community relations between Muslims and others, he said.
In years past, several runners have competed in the Montgomery Invitational wearing head coverings, including Shakira Raheem, who competed for Albert Einstein High School before graduating in 2007, and Fatima Abbas, who ran for Rogers at Walter Johnson before graduating in 1999.
‘‘The head covering itself was never a violation,” Rogers said. ‘‘Fatima ran with a hejab for four years, and she never had any problems.”
He said there was another athlete, a boys hurdler from James Robinson High School in Virginia, who was not allowed to compete at the Montgomery Invitational this month because of uniform violations similar to Kelly’s.
‘‘The torso of [Kelly’s] undergarment was multicolored, which was the same problem that the kid from Robinson had,” Rogers said. ‘‘The implication was religious discrimination, but that was absolutely not the case. It is a very one-sided view that has been out there and that has been hurtful.”

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