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Today’s high school sports officials are often caught between the “rock” of enforcing rules strictly and the “hard place” of interpreting the rules sensibly, and are literally all that stands between the ideal of safe competition and the specter of injury.

Yet rules contain restrictions on uniforms and personal adornments that sometimes conflict with athletes’ religious practices or beliefs. For example, NFHS basketball rules permit headwear required for religious reasons as long as the requirement is documented to the state association. Failure on the part of a school to follow the rule can lead to pernicious consequences.

Enforce safety-related rules ALL the time

Such was the case not too long ago in a couple of late-season high school basketball games. In each game, officials declined to overlook the rules requirement to display a state-association rules waiver for religious headwear. The rule involved, according to the NFHS, is in place as a safety precaution and so that state officials are aware of any equipment that is not included in a standard uniform. After the game, the coach told the news media that nobody had informed her about the applicable rule, and that the athlete involved had been permitted to play all season wearing a hijab as required by her religious faith. If true, officials failing to enforce the rule did nobody, including their fellow officials, any favors. For their diligence in enforcing the rule, the officials were rewarded by this statement issued by the state high school association:

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“Unfortunately, the officials made a strict interpretation of the National Federation of State High Schools playing rules for basketball instead of the spirit of the rule designed to ensure safety and competitive fairness. There should have been no denial of participation.”

The public statement from the state association leaves officials wondering when a “strict interpretation” of a safety-related rule is in order, and when officials should forego the rule.

Why are the officials at fault? Had the athlete’s school corresponded with the state high school association, a waiver would have permitted the athlete to participate by simply displaying the document to the officials. This failure to follow the rule somehow was translated into blaming the officials for enforcing the rule as it was written.

A more suitable course of action would be for the schools involved to provide rules training by the state high school athletic association to schools and their administrators and coaches.

To avoid legal trouble, enforce the safety-related rule. All the time.

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Note: This article is archival in nature. Rules, interpretations, mechanics, philosophies and other information may or may not be correct for the current year.

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