Legal Concerns

LEGAL CONCERNS: Making Our Playing Fields Level for ALL Athletes

When Game Officials Overlook Youth Leaguers’ Cultural, Ethnic, or Religious Identities

 By Doug Abrams

When the Flagstaff (Ariz.) High School Eagles girls basketball team faced Greenway High School earlier this month, the Eagles wore their hair in traditional Navajo buns during pregame warmup. Flagstaff is near the Navajo reservation, a sizeable percentage of the student body are from the tribe, and the girls wore the buns to honor their heritage. Before tipoff, the referee prohibited the buns as a potential safety hazard because they were done with yarn. The girls complied and removed them.

Reuters reported that Flagstaff’s principal was “livid” at the referee’s decision, and that the Navajo Nation’s president called it “blatant discrimination.” The Arizona Interscholastic Association, which administers the state’s high school sports, said that the referee had applied the rules in good faith without intending an insult. But the Association apologized and announced that players may wear Navajo buns in future games. The Association has promised to continue exploring issues related to cultural sensitivity.

We have been down this road before. First a game official decides that a youth player, coach, or team may not participate while wearing a cultural, ethnic, or religious symbol, or while speaking a language other than English. Without suggesting that anyone had ever played dirty, the official cites player safety or competitive parity. When the referee’s decision becomes public, the league or the sport’s national or local governing body rescinds the decision and apologizes.

Consider these prior incidents:

Lakeville, Massachusetts (2005)  

In the third inning of a Little League semifinal state tournament game, a Methuen (Mass.) assistant coach instructed his 14-year-old pitcher in Spanish to try to pick off a runner at second base.  The press reported that Methuen’s pitcher and catcher did not speak English fluently.

The umpire stopped the game, instructed the assistant coach to speak only English, and threatened to eject any player or coach he heard speaking Spanish. Methuen’s manager called the umpire’s instruction “sickening,” but he continued the game when the tournament director on the scene backed the umpire.

“It appears,” a Little League spokesman told the Associated Press afterwards, that “the umpire was concerned that the coach or manager may have been using a language other than English . . . to communicate potentially ‘illegal’ instructions to his players.” The umpire reportedly also thought that speaking a foreign language might give Methuen an unfair advantage.

Little League International, whose rule book comes in both English and Spanish, distanced itself from the umpire’s decision and instructed state officials to remove him from further games in the state tournament.

Cooper City, Florida (2012)

 Two referees ejected a volunteer youth soccer coach from a game for instructing some of his 14-18-year-old players in Spanish. The coach had refused to heed the refs’ instructions to speak only English.  The ejected coach later said that various referees had also tried to discourage players from speaking Spanish to one another during games. As in Lakeville a few years earlier, league officials disavowed any English-only rule within a few days.

Aurora, Colorado (2014)

The Overland High School Trailblazers opened their girls varsity soccer season short one player. The referees sidelined the Muslim player with a pre-game ruling that her hijab, a headscarf worn by Muslim women as a sign of modesty and devotion, created a “danger.”

Trailblazer coaches and teammates, and other voices on social media, criticized the ruling, and the Trailblazers stood with their sidelined teammate. Most were not Muslims, but all sent a powerful message by wearing hijabs in their next game two days later. The referees let them play, and no injuries were reported.

Central to American Life

I do not know the motives of the officials in Flagstaff or in any of the earlier games reported here. Game officials have a tough job and may deserve the benefit of the doubt in some cases, but reason remains for suspicion that prejudice may sometime play a role in expressed concerns for safety or competitive parity. It seems more than an uncomfortable coincidence that in matters of conscience or respect, reports of youth leaguers regulated by officials tend to involve members of cultural, ethnic, or religious minorities who seem “different.”

Incidents such as the ones described here should remind us that sports provides valuable opportunities for youngsters of various backgrounds to participate in mainstream national culture. Because sports remains central to American life, the impulse to include, rather than exclude, children marks youth leagues at their finest.

Seeking to induce children to disavow their heritage or religion, or to speak a language they have not yet mastered, serves no worthwhile purpose because arbitrarily excluding children from wholesome activities serves no worthwhile purpose. When youngsters from diverse cultures play hard and clean and contribute to the team, sports programs serve the community best by displaying tolerance and respect for individual differences. Tolerance includes rules applications that demonstrate respect without conferring competitive advantage or otherwise changing the essential character of the game or competition.

Youth sports incidents such as the one that arose earlier this month in Flagstaff may not happen often, but they happen. If these incidents have a silver lining, it is that suspected prejudice exposed to public view usually does not withstand the light of day.

These incidents suggest the wisdom of proactive measures. To the extent possible, league rules should address reasonably foreseeable sensitive issues that are likely to have particular impact on cultural, ethnic, or religious minorities. The Arizona Interscholastic Association promises to promises to pay closer attention to sensitivity issues, as it should. So should other leagues and governing bodies nationwide.

These issues are not always predictable. Referee certification classes and clinics, which generally are already required, should discuss tolerance and respect with game officials who will administer largely discretionary standards such as safety and competitive parity. Avoidable embarrassment, even followed by apology, serves no one in youth sports well.


Sources: Reuters, Arizona Basketball Team Wins Reversal of Navajo Hair Bun Ban,  (Feb. 5, 2016); Aurelio Moreno, Coach Speaks Spanish, Is Tossed: Cooper City Soccer League Says It Has No Such Rule, Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.), Dec. 21, 2012;  Assoc. Press, Ump Bans Mass. Team From Speaking Spanish, USA Today, July 29, 2005; Mark Zeigler, Ump Out – Told Massachusetts Little Leaguers: English Only, San Diego Union-Tribune, July 30, 2005; Douglas E. Abrams, Youth Sports Heroes of the Month: Overland High School (Aurora, Colo.) Girls Soccer Team, (Mar. 31, 2014).