Sikh’ing Equal Treatment

Why FIBA’s rules are discriminatory, unfair and have no place in international sports competition.


International basketball’s governing body, the Federation Interenationale de Basket-ball (“FIBA”), will meet in Spain next week to determine the fate of religious freedom in the sport. Presently, FIBA rules do not allow its players to wear religious articles of faith, including the traditional Sikh turban or the Muslim hijab.

Not only are these rules discriminatory, but they violate the spirit of competition, and preclude some of the world’s best and brightest from representing their nations and faiths in competitions they have worked the majority of their adult lives to participate in.

Just this past week, FIBA officials embarrassed Indian player Anmol Singh during a tournament in Doha, Qatar, by forcing him to remove his turban in order to play for his Under-18 national team. This same issue also came to a head in July when two other Sikh members of the Indian National Team were told they would not be able to play with their turbans in the FIBA Asia Cup, a qualifying tournament for the FIBA World Cup.

Facing a no-win, last-minute choice between their religious beliefs and their vocational dreams, that pair — 6-foot-11 Amrit Pal Singh and 6-foot-8 Amjyot Singh — opted to play without their turbans. After the tournament, they separately described the deep disappointment and humiliation they felt because of the situation, and vowed that they would never again abandon their turbans on the court. Following the incident, FIBA issued a statement in which it explained its current policy:

“This measure was established more than 10 years ago for two main reasons: safety on the basketball court and uniformity of equipment within a team. As a result, the wearing of a turban or a headscarf, just like any other object or accessory to be worn on a player’s head, is not authorized in official FIBA competitions.”

Evidence to date is at odds with FIBA’s assumption that religious headgear poses a safety risk. The Smithsonian Institute recently honored Darsh Preet Singh as the first turbaned athlete to play NCAA basketball, and Dipanjot Singh has played in both the NCAA and the National Basketball League of Canada. Their turbans resulted in no injuries, just like secular accessories worn by NBA greats — Lebron James’s headband and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s goggles come to mind — posed no obvious risk to other players.

This Tuesday, two U.S. Congressman — Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y., and Rep. Ami Bera, D-Ca. — sent a letter to FIBA, calling its policy “discriminatory” and urging it to reconsider its stance. (Both Sikh players had previously played competitive international basketball without a problem, including last year’s Asia Cup hosted by, you guessed it, FIBA.)

Of course, this is not the first time FIBA has found itself in hot water after infringing upon religious liberty. Just last year, a team of women from Maldives forfeited their game in a FIBA Asia Under-18 tournament when officials disallowed them from wearing hijabs. Then, this past June, Tulane University star and professional player Indira Kaijo was denied a professional basketball career in Europe due to FIBA’s no-hijab policy. Each of these incidents has sparked some international outcry, but FIBA has yet to propose an appropriate solution to allow for on-court religious diversity.

FIBA’s current policy is not only discriminatory; it is also outdated, insensitive, and unacceptable:

  1. It is outdated because a number of other sports leagues have already modernized and embraced diversity. In March of this year, the governing body for soccer, FIFA, formally announced that turbans, hijabs, and kippas would be permissible. This provision came after a 20-month observation period to determine if these religious articles posed enough danger to justify a ban.
  2. It is insensitive because the policy does not consider the magnitude of what these religious articles mean to those who maintain them. For Sikhs, the turban is not a simple piece of clothing that can be taken on and off; as the two U.S. Congressman noted in their letter to FIBA, the turban “is essential to their faith.”
  3. It is unacceptable because it fails to account for religious diversity among the 214 nations that it represents. Basketball is rapidly spreading across the globe, and its leadership ought to respect all of those who are embracing the sport. In this day and age, there is no excuse for an international organization to discriminate against its own constituents.

When FIBA representatives meet next week to discuss their current rules, they should follow the lead of peer organizations (e.g., FIFA, NCAA) and let players compete with their articles of faith. Quite simply, there exists no compelling reason to ban same from competitive sports.

(You can effect change and be heard. Send a letter to FIBA, urging that their policies be changed to account for religious diversity, and join the Twitter campaign by tweeting @FIBA with the hashtag #LetSikhsPlay.)