Nasihah Thompson-King chose to stand up for her religious beliefs by taking a seat.
The 16-year-old student from Mastery Charter School Shoemaker Campus was confronted with an unfamiliar dilemma last week by a referee officiating her high school basketball game: Remove the hijab she wears as part of her Islamic faith and take the court, or be prevented from playing.
She refused to take off the hijab and stayed on the bench.
“My hijab is part of me, and I feel like I was going to take off a part of me to play in the game,” said the high school sophomore as she sat beside her mother, Fatima Thompson, inside their Overbrook home on Monday.
The incident occurred Friday during a quarterfinal playoff game against Academy at Palumbo. Thompson-King plays for the Mastery Charter North-Pickett Pumas, which is part of Philadelphia Public League’s District 12.
The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) governs the referees officiating at the games. The PIAA was closed on Monday for President’s Day and could not be reached for comment. But Philadelphia Public League President James Patrick Lynch said: “This should never have happened.”
“The official took it upon herself to essentially enforce a rule that could have been avoided with just better judgement knowing that this does not impact a student-athlete’s ability to play basketball any better than anyone else in anyway, shape, or form,” Lynch said.
Even before Friday, Thompson-King said she was informed before a basketball game two days earlier by a referee that she needed a waiver in order wear her hijab in the game.
Although Thompson-King was permitted to wear her hijab during the first game, the same referee brought up the issue again at Friday’s game and refused to let her play.
Thompson-King has played on her high school basketball team for two years and has always worn a hijab. Before last week, neither she nor her mother were aware of any religious waiver, they said.
Thompson said that requiring a waiver to wear a hijab during a school sport was discrimination and “just another hoop to jump through.”
“For me, as a parent and as an African-American woman — a Muslim woman — I see it as an intentional barrier,” she said.
PIAA rules state that students who are required to wear a head covering for religious or medical reason must provide a statement from a physician or corresponding document to the organization. The state organization will then provide written authorization to the school to be made available to officials.
Thompson-King said she was embarrassed when the referee drew attention to her tight-fitting, sporty hijab during the fourth quarter of Friday’s game and refused to let her play.
“I felt upset because I wanted to play the game,” she said.
Principal Sharif El-Mekki said he was “floored” when he heard about the incident, noting that his school has a large Muslim student population.
“This is unacceptable,” he said.
El-Mekki was calling on the PIAA to ban that referee from officiating any future school sports.
Lynch said he aware of the PIAA waiver and that some city students have applied for it through the state organization, but that the requirement shouldn’t have been enforced.
In the coming week, the Philadelphia Public League and school district will be reaching out to the PIAA to discuss amending its rules to eliminate the need for student-athletes to seek a waiver in order to alter their uniforms for religious reasons, as well as remove the authority from officials to even address the issue, Lynch said.
“There should be no need for a waiver form or exception to be granted for a student to have the same rights as everybody else,” he said.
As for Thompson, she called on the PIAA to apologize to her daughter and amend its rules governing religious waivers.
“There should be no accommodation form necessary for someone who wears the hijab to play sports in the state of Pennsylvania,” she said.
Thompson, who is 44 and has experienced discrimination herself for wearing a hijab, added that she was proud for her daughter for standing up for her religious beliefs.
“It’s so important to address situations like this so that our younger generation doesn’t have to encounter or experience things that we’ve experienced,” she said. “You would think that adults living in this time would have access to more information that they wouldn’t have behaviors that — to me, for lack of a better word — are ignorant.”
After winning both games last week, the Mastery Charter North-Pickett Pumas will compete against Mastery South on Wednesday at Kensington High School in the District 12 semifinals, with the championship game set for this weekend. The Mastery Charter North-Pickett Pumas are the defending champions.
In the meantime, Thompson said she and her daughter have not signed the religious waiver, and are awaiting a response from the PIAA.
But Lynch said Thompson-King will be able to play Wednesday wearing her hijab. In addition, Lynch said he will attend the game to ensure officials are aware of the issue.