Say goodbye to the rule requiring Pa. athletes to get waivers to wear hijabs | Helen Ubiñas

Nasihah Thompson-King was benched by a referee after she refused to take off her hijab for a public league basketball game.

In what shall henceforth be called the Nasihah Thompson-King Rule ™, the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association recently decided that athletes no longer need to get prior approval to wear head garments for religious reasons.

We can, and should, thank a Philadelphia teenager for that.

Thompson-King, a 16-year-old high school student and basketball player, forced the association into the 21st century by reminding some very cranky officials about some very basic civil rights.

She resisted, she persisted, and now other athletes in Pennsylvania can observe their beliefs and play sports without some special waiver.

The First Amendment isn’t a perk, people. It’s an inalienable right.

As I first told you last winter, the Mastery Charter School sophomore was about to play in a quarterfinal playoff game against Academy at Palumbo when a referee chose the rule books over common sense and told her she had to take off her hijab if she wanted to play.

That wasn’t a choice for Thompson-King.

Camera icon DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Nasihah Thompson-King is glad no one has to worry about choosing religion over sports.

“She was asking me to take off a part of myself to play,” she said when we spoke in February.

She didn’t play, and the incident sparked righteous outrage from her family, her community, and the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, including State Rep. Jordan Harris and State Sen. Sharif Street, who questioned the constitutionality of the policy. Philadelphia Public League president James Patrick Lynch also sent an apology and vowed to take it up with the statewide organization that governs the referees officiating at the games.

When Street called the PIAA he got the same chilly reception I’d gotten earlier when PIAA executive director Robert A. Lombardi told me I was just trying to trump up controversy by insisting that a basic right shouldn’t need a waiver.

“This is a communication issue only,” he said then, adding that all the school needed to have done was file the waiver. “It’s not a religious issue.”

PIAA officials told Street that rules were rules and he shouldn’t be asking for special treatment for one student.

Street, who was prepared to call for legislative hearings, didn’t budge. It wasn’t special treatment, he told them, it was placing an undue burden on the free exercise of religion for student athletes.

It took some time and some back and forth as both sides worked on a draft of a new rule, but a rule change was eventually accepted at the May 23 board meeting.

“I want to commend PIAA for seeing the light and agreeing to internally adopt a rule change that would allow the free expression of religion by each and every student without filing for waivers,” Street said. “I would like to think that we appealed to the better angels of their soul.”

Harris, who called the waiver an archaic remnant of an unaccepting and uneducated society, was also happy with the outcome.

“No child should have to decide between their religious beliefs and playing sports in this commonwealth,” he said, “and now, no longer they do.”

In a news release, Street and Harris thanked those who stood with them against the injustice, but they saved their most effusive gratitude for one young woman.

“I thank young Ms. Nasihah Thompson-King for the strength of her convictions,” Harris said.

Thompson-King’s mother called her with the good news.

“At first I was shocked,” Thompson-King. “And then I was happy.”

She laughed when I called her a trailblazer. She’s glad no one has to worry about choosing religion over sports anymore, but she told me that she was confident that if she told her story, the adults would do the right thing.

I’m not sure we deserve that kind of faith, but as the country becomes more diverse and divisive, we would do well to remember young people like Thompson-King still believe their elders will stand on the right side of issues,  and live up to it.

The season is over, but already Thompson-King is looking forward to next year, when she has to think only about her free throws instead of her freedoms. As it should be.