The National Federation of State High School Associations, the governing body for most high school sports in the U.S., will discuss the clause in its softball rulebook that recently led to a Black player in North Carolina having her braids cut and tugged in order to remove the beads on their ends.
Karissa Niehoff, the executive director of the NFHS, told Yahoo Sports on Friday that the organization needs “to celebrate engagement, participation, and we have to have rules that support that.”
On April 19, umpires at a game between intra-city rivals in Durham, North Carolina, stopped action at the top of the second inning to tell sophomore Nicole Pyles, in the on-deck circle waiting for her at-bat, that she had to remove her beads. They were in violation of the NFHS rule prohibiting plastic visors, bandanas and hair beads; the rules allow barrettes and bobby pins. The banning of beads, worn by many Black girls and women, appears culturally biased, a charge Niehoff denied.
Pyles said she felt humiliated and disrespected while “the whole world was looking at” her as teammates, some of them seniors being recognized on senior night, worked to remove the clear pearls.
She acknowledged the rule but didn’t understand its necessity, and Niehoff doesn’t entirely disagree.
“What we look at in rules is first, what is necessary to play the game, from an equipment perspective and from a uniform perspective — what do kids absolutely need to be able to play this game? And then we look at rules around the safety of the equipment, the type of equipment, the appropriateness,” Niehoff said. “So in softball for example a bat that we use in high school might not be as ‘hot’ as one they would use at higher levels. That’s the case in baseball. So they consider protection for the kids.
“[As] we get into the area of beads, now we look at, what are things that kids are asking to bring into the experience that may not be necessarily important to actually playing the game? If we look at something like the need to restrain long hair, something like a soft scrunchie or rubber bands or in the case of softball, a flat barrette, it would have to be able to fit under a helmet without compromising the fit of the helmet.”
Niehoff said the beads sometime wrap around braids or locks closer to the scalp, which can affect the fit of a helmet.
Pyles’ beads were on the ends of her braids and not under her helmet.
“A bead isn’t considered essential, it’s considered an adornment like a bandana or something else like jewelry, so the issue of whether or not adornments are appropriate for the game really has to do with whether or not they might pose a risk. It really has nothing to do with culture,” Niehoff said.
“All that being said, one of the things that’s happened, especially recently, and what’s been really beautiful is to see our participation numbers and the players becoming more diverse. And now they’re bringing in identity — beads or hijabs or in the Native cultures, feathers, and looking at all of these things that are part of a young person’s identity and can we bring them into the game in a way that isn’t a safety risk.”
Perhaps the most confounding part of the Pyles incident is that she had her braids and beads in for at least five other games this spring, and one of the umpires who was on hand for the April 19 game who told her to take the beads out had officiated at least one of those. She hadn’t been told to remove them or that she was in violation of the rulebook.
The NFHS dealt with a similar situation last year after a Muslim volleyball player in Tennessee was disqualified from playing because she did not have approval from her state association to wear her hijab during matches; in that case, as this, the young woman had played other matches with the hijab, without incident.
In February, the NFHS announced that the approval requirement had been eliminated.
The way things happened in Pyles' case and the uneven adherence to the clause bothered Niehoff.
“I wasn’t there and don't know the play-by-play," Niehoff said. "The official was obviously trying to officiate by what’s in the rulebook, obviously her experience would indicate that there have been situations when the official chose to speak with the coach privately — or didn’t — and just allowed the beads to be there.
“I think the most disheartening thing is the inconsistency, because the inconsistency leads to this really discouraging situation, embarrassing situation, and I think that’s where we’re trying to work with officials now to say in these situations let’s think about what might best help with the dignity of everybody involved, unless it’s really a [safety] concern, but do it with the coach and the player, keep some calm and keep some patience.”
The softball rules committee will meet virtually in mid-June. From there it will go to the rules review committee, then the NFHS board of directors. All of that will take about a month before a change becomes official.
Niehoff is also going to reach out to Pyles and her family through her school. The young woman and her father have told media they were seeking an apology, and Pyles didn’t want another player to have to endure the same humiliation she felt.
“It’s not a little deal, this is a big deal,” Niehoff said. “We’re very sorry that it happened to her and wish that it would not have happened that way, and we’re considering when the committee reconvenes that we don’t want her situation to happen again.”
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