Let Sikhs play - How turban bans in sport are threatening the last surviving bastion of equal rights

Amjyot Singh
Amjyot Singh (right)

A level playing field by definition means that no single individual or team is allowed to take undue advantages to bend the rules in their favour. But the phrases ‘level playing field’ and ‘undue advantage’ – the two cardinal principles governing sports – have come into question in light of a recent incident.

The turban ban incident

Last week, two Sikh players on the Indian national men’s basketball team – Amjyot Singh and Amrit Pal Singh – were ordered to remove their head gear/turbans before the opening match against Japan in the 5th FIBA Asia Cup in Wuhan.

Freelance basketball writer Karan Madhok, who was at the venue in China, brought this episode to light on his personal blog ‘Hoopistani’. “We have always played in turbans, even in last year's FIBA Asia Championship in Manila,” Amrit Pal told Madhok after the game. “Playing without it felt very awkward. I wear a turban in practice, too, and it was strange to not have it on during the game.”

What aggravated matters is that India Head Coach Scott Flemming had apparently already got prior approval from the FIBA Technical Commission for his players to wear turbans. “I spent a long time advocating for our players the day before the Japan game and finally thought we got the ok for [them] to wear their turbans," he was quoted as saying.

None of India’s opposition teams expressed any objection to India’s players wearing turbans, and it appears that FIBA took this decision unilaterally, moments before tip-off.

In the best interests of the team, despite their personal misgivings, the two Singhs proceeded to play the entire tournament – six games in total – without their traditional head gear which they’ve worn since childhood as part of their Sikh tradition. But should they have done so?

FIBA Rule governing head gear

Admittedly, there is already an official FIBA rule (4.4.2) in place prohibiting basketball players from wearing headgear:

4.4.2 Players shall not wear equipment (objects) that may cause injury to other players.

• The following are not permitted:

? Finger, hand, wrist, elbow or forearm guards, casts or braces made of

leather, plastic, pliable (soft) plastic, metal or any other hard substance,

even if covered with soft padding.

? Objects that could cut or cause abrasions (fingernails must be closely cut).

? Headgear, hair accessories and jewellery.

Every kid in India who has even played amateur school level tournaments would have experienced having to step off the floor when referees notice long nails, earrings or bracelets. This restriction is perfectly understandable considering that in a high contact, high speed sport like basketball, pointed or hard objects can cause serious injury to players, ranging from bleeding to blindness.

However, one of the guidelines governing statutory interpretation is called ‘ejusdem generis’. Basically, this Latin maxim means that subsequent words in any rule have to be read in light of preceding words and interpreted in that context. No doubt, this FIBA rule 4.4.2 says that ‘headgear’ is not permitted. But applying the ejusdem generis principle, it is clear that the kind of “head gear” that is prohibited is the one that “may cause injury to other players”.

Just a piece of cloth

A Sikh’s turban is merely a piece of cloth. This article of clothing can in no way harm an opponent or give an undue advantage to the player wearing it. Obviously, ‘headgear’ which is ornamental in nature and containing hard or metallic objects such as tiaras or crowns risk causing injuries to players concerned. But I can’t think of a single instance when a piece of cloth wrapped around a player’s head has harmed others.

In fact, disallowing turbans would cause more harm, considering that in such cases a Sikh’s long flowing locks can hit somebody in the eye, or opponents can pull on it to gain an “undue advantage.”

According to their tradition, Sikhs are mandated to carry on their person five articles of faith at all times (known as the five K’s of Sikhism): ‘kesh’ – long uncut hair; ‘kangha’ or comb; ‘kada’ – metallic bracelet; ‘kaccha’ – a loose undergarment and ‘kirpan’ – a ceremonial dagger. The Sikh players in question here are not complaining about carrying a comb, wearing a kada or bearing a dagger for obvious reasons of safety. The protest here is only with respect to tying their ‘kesh’ in a harmless turban.

Banning turbans – the larger issue of the right to play

On the surface it seems simple enough: just take off your turbans and move on with the game. But what is at stake here is the larger issue of protecting the personal religious beliefs of an individual on and off the court.

The Indian government has taken up the issue as well, with sports minister Sarbananda Sonowal expressing shock and outrage over the incident. The Indian sports ministry has even asked the IOC to issue the guidelines for issues such as this, while stressing that India’s government “respects all religions and will do everything to ensure that their sentiments do not get hurt”.

There is an undeniable joy in playing sports. Whether it be on a cricket pitch, a football field, or a basketball court, sport has become the last surviving bastion of equality in an increasingly polarised world.

An expression of religious, personal or spiritual belief should therefore not be ‘ruled’ upon unless it alters the competitiveness of the sport either to a person’s advantage or to the disadvantage of opponents. Rules restricting an athlete’s religious expressions have in fact been brought up in the past, by way of an apparent court case filed by a Sikh basketballer in Canada and a Muslim woman basketballer’s right to wear a Hijab.

Rules are meant to be broken

One of the chronic ills that plagues most institutions is that people manning high level administrative posts in any regulatory field of activity, feel that it is their duty to keep ‘doing’ something. They fail to realise that ‘not doing anything’ is just as important as ‘doing’. This is why constant unnecessary tweaks are made every few years in almost every sport – from alternatively allowing/disallowing head guards in boxing, to permitting and subsequently banning turbans and Hijabs.

To borrow some Zen Buddhist funda from the Jackie Chan-Jaden Smith starrer Karate Kid:

Being still and doing nothing are two very different things.

A sardar’s turban isn’t obscene, doesn’t risk injury to others, nor does it give him any undue advantage. The only reason for banning it is that a few old fogeys, with nothing better to do in life and simply to keep themselves busy, are endangering the wonderful inclusion that sports always stands for: that you may be of any colour, shape, size, caste or religion, but on the court you will always find your home.

The great champion of human rights in America, Martin Luther King had once remarked:

There are just laws and there are unjust laws...an unjust law is no law at all... One who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly... an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law..

Baseless turban bans like this are therefore “unjust laws” that are meant to be broken.

India’s star players Amjyot and Amrit Pal chose to take off their turbans in the interest of “getting on with it”. But they must never acquiesce to this again. In the future, the entire Indian contingent should simply refuse to play and boycott such events. Other teams must also rise up in support.

FIBA needs to show that it is willing to accept mistakes. Admitting you are wrong is as much a part of leadership as is taking decisions. The buck stops with FIBA. Revoke this rule. NOW.

What you can do

A group of Sikhs worldwide have launched an online campaign (#LetSikhsPlay) to raise awareness on this issue. You can make your voice heard by respectfully registering your protest to FIBA by simply dropping the tweet #LetSikhsPlay to @FIBA.

Just for a glimpse of what the turban ban might deprive the basketball world of, here’s a clip of Amjyot Singh’s alley-oop dunk during the Asia Cup:


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Edited by Staff Editor
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