Basketball association ‘slam dunked’ by Human Rights

Recently, in an International Basketball Federation (“FIBA”) tournament, match officials required two Indian Sikh basketball players to remove their head-coverings prior to competing for their nation in this year’s FIBA Asian Cup.

The reason given by the officials was that the head-covering violated FIBA’s Rule 4.4.2 which states that “Players shall not wear equipment (objects) that may cause injury to other players.” Needless to say, this decision was not taken lightly by the players. More controversially, both men had previously been allowed to play in other FIBA competitions with the same head-covering.

The law

This case clearly highlights a contradiction between rulings that appear to discriminate against athletes from visible religious minorities, and principles of International sport and Human Rights Law – under which the right to religious freedom is explicitly protected and diversity is supposedly valued. 

One must therefore question whether the above interpretation of these rules are to prevent injury or whether they are intended to keep religion off the court. 

Rule 4.4.2 FIBA specifies that “headgear, hair accessories and jewellery” are not permitted during game play, however the rule does allow other garments in the same category as head-coverings to be worn, e.g mouth guards, glasses and headbands. The only difference appears to be that head-coverings are religious symbols and not protective gear. 

Under Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”. Evidently, under this law, the decision of the match officials violated the basic principles of International Human Rights Law. 

On the other hand, Article 1 of FIBA’s General Statutes aims to ensure that FIBA maintains absolute religious neutrality. They also apply on a global scale and do not make any distinctions between various religious freedoms, ensuring that none of them are being targeted specifically or discriminated against. 

Comparisons with other sports

Football’s governing body FIFA have also confronted this issue. After taking almost two years to decide, they finally changed their minds in March 2014 to allow for head-coverings in football, which had originally been banned in 2007. Their findings showed that there was no medical evidence to support the basis that head-coverings may cause injury.

Moving forward

What may cause injury in sport is purely a match official’s opinion. However, such a literal application of the current rules surrounding headgear, will always seem to disadvantage players who are members of a visible religious minority. For example, there would clearly be uproar if match officials told dreadlocked players to shave their heads because of an injury threat. Dreadlocks, like head-coverings, can be religious symbols, and we cannot allow players to be forced to make a decision between playing sport or wearing their religious symbol. 

Overall there are very few mechanisms for athletes to fight for their rights. Athletes have little say in sporting policy and are rarely consulted. When sport and Human Rights clash, the sporting world needs to look beyond their rules to the broader impact on athletes and their individual rights. Only then can sport begin to be compatible with cultural, religious diversity and International Human Rights.

Daniel De Saulles is a recent LPC graduate, currently working at DAC Beachcroft in Birmingham. Read all his sports blogs for Lawyer 2B.