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Indiana Teen Unfairly Kicked Off Basketball Team Because Of Length Of His Hair

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Last October, 14-year-old Austin Hayden earned a place on his Greensburg, Indiana middle school boys' basketball team.  A week later, he was told he could no longer be a member of the team after refusing to cut his hair (which was long, but not long enough to pull into a pony-tail) to comply with the coach's policy, which required that his hair be above his collar and ears.

When I spoke to Austin's mother, Melissa, last week, she told me that the school claimed that the coach had the right to impose a hair length policy because he wanted to portray team members as "clean cut boys" and for the sake of "team unity", but that other school teams, Austin Haydenincluding the football and track teams, didn't require players' hair to be of a certain length in order for them to play.

When Melissa's efforts to get the school to change the coach's policy fell on deaf ears, she and her husband filed a federal lawsuit, claiming that coach's hair policy violated Austin's First Amendment rights of freedom of expression and ran afoul of Title IX because it required him to conform to a gender stereotype: that boys have short hair and only girls have long hair.

Nonsense

First off the bat, it seems clear to me that the punishment didn't fit the alleged "crime."  One simply has to ask the question - is a refusal to follow a rule dictating the length of a player's hair a sufficient basis to kick him off the team? - to come to the immediate conclusion that the rule simply can't be justified.

When an athlete gets kicked off a sports team, it is usually for a serious rules violation, such as drinking, or because he or she is academically ineligible. Kicking a teen athlete who chooses (with his parents' approval, by the way) to wear his hair over his ears and collar off the team? Come on!

School-sanctioned hazing?

I also believe that requiring athletes with longer hair to cut their hair in order to play basketball borders on school-sanctioned hazing and a form of emotional abuse. In terms of its practical effect, it is hard to for me to understand how it is any different than, say, a coach who allows a hazing ritual in which veteran players shave the heads of rookies.

I can only imagine the embarrassment a teen like Austin, who chose to wear his hair long as a matter of personal choice and as part of his identity, would likely suffer in having to then attend school with a bald head until his hair grew back.

Granted, the coach's rule in this instance didn't require the players' heads be shaved.  But forcing Austin to cut his hair would likely have had much the same effect: instead of being proud to have made the basketball team, Austin faced a loss of self-esteem and self-worth.  Worse, his change in appearance would likely have exposed him to possible taunting, teasing, and perhaps even bullying by classmates ('Hey, dude! Nice 'do'!").  No wonder Austin decided not only to refuse to cut his hair but to move in with his grandparents so he could attend another school which did not have such a policy.

Promoting bullying?

Tragically, one month before Austin was dropped from the basketball team, along with another student who also refused to comply with the hair length rule, Billy Lucas, a ninth-grader at Greensburg High, committed suicide, allegedly after being bullied at school. According to an article in the Greensburg Daily News, bullying was "run[ning] rampant and unchecked through the school."

How is a no-hair over the ears or collar policy justified out of a desire to portray the boys as "clean cut"? How is it any different than bullying a boy into doing what the bullier considers the norm?

In light of the bullying problem in its schools, that the Greensburg school superintendent refused to drop the rule makes his subsequent commitments to continue utilizing a nationally-recognized anti-bullying program and to engage an outside expert to train Greensburg staff "on social issues our youth face, with a particular emphasis on diversity, sensitivity and tolerance" ring particularly hollow.

Nor can a policy that forces all players to wear their hair above their ears and collars be justified as furthering the goal of team unity. Hazing hurts rather than helps team unity, and constitutes just the kind of emotional and physical abuse anti-hazing laws and policies are designed to prevent.

Gender stereotyping

To those who say the coach was within his rights to require players to cut their hair because playing sports is supposedly a privilege, not a right, one need look no further than Title IX, which, for nearly four decades, has stipulated that "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."

As a youth sports expert and mom of triplet boys, I know from first-hand experience that kids Austin's age are struggling to find who they are as individuals and they need to be able to express that individuality, as Austin is in terms of his hair, as long as it doesn't create a major problem for the school.

Most telling is the fact that girls in Greensburg aren't required to have long hair - or prohibited from wearing their hair short - in order to participate in sports. That says to me that the "clean cut" justification is just another way of saying boys on the basketball team can't have long hair because it doesn't conform to the coach's narrow definition of how a teenage boy should look; in short, gender stereotyping that federal anti-discrimination laws prohibit.

Courage

As a trained social worker, Austin's mom, Melissa, was probably more aware than most about the emotional damage complying with such a rule would cause her son, and the damage the rule, left unchallenged, was likely to cause other boys like her son, and, indeed, the larger school community.

She had the courage, along with her husband and son, to challenge the rule, to the point of making the proverbial federal case out of it, and I applaud her for taking a stand.

I know from personal experience that advocating for change in the status quo in youth sports comes at a price. When my efforts to persuade the local travel soccer club to become more inclusive fell on deaf ears, I started a new travel soccer club to give players a chance to play who had not been offered spots on the existing club's teams.  While many applauded my efforts, I met with stiff resistance from the powers that be, to the point that they did everything within their power to see that our application to join the county soccer league was denied. To say that I got the cold shoulder from the entrenched interests running youth sports in my town after that is an understatement.

From talking with Melissa, I know that, while the Hayden family has received support from some members of the Greensburg community, they are also being vilified in some quarters for their stance.  I am sure it has been a highly stressful situation, not only for their family, but for the broader community. 

My only hope is that they will ultimately be successful in their efforts to break down the gender stereotypes that cause such damage in communities around the nation, and, if they are successful will feel that it was worth the effort.

Grassroots change

As I wrote in my book, Home Team Advantage, "Most parents in this country want a youth sports system that serves the interests of children. They represent a vast silent majority who just need the courage to stand up and band together to fight those who want to preserve a status quo serving the interests of adults."

My advice to parents now, as it when I wrote my book, is that if they see inequity or unfairness in youth sports, if they see safety issues, or if they see a lack of inclusiveness, they need to have the courage to speak up like the Haydens, to advocate not just for their children but for all of the children in their community. Speak up at pre-season meetings. Talk to the athletic director at your child's school. Attend school board meetings and board meetings of the youth sports organizations in your town.

Ultimately, the path to making youth sports safer, fairer, more inclusive, and more child- instead of adult-centered, can only be accomplished at the grassroots, community level, through the actions of concerned mothers and fathers like Melissa and Patrick Hayden.

[Update: On February 24, 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, in a 2-1 decisin, reversed a lower court decision, finding that the hair policy violated Austin's constitutional right to equal protection, as well as Title IX restrictions against discrimination in education]


Brooke de Lench is Executive Director of the non-profit MomsTEAM Institute, Founder and Publisher of MomsTEAM.com, Producer/Director/Creator of the PBS documentary, "The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer," and author of "Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports" (HarperCollins 2006). 


What is truly important in our youth

Brook,
Living in Indianapolis,I know of this situation in Greensburg, IN about the long hair. There is so much of this story that is left out that I would love to know. What I mean by left out is, was he a good student and get good grades ? Was he liked by fellow students and his teamates ? Was he respectful to his coach's and his teachers? I dont know the answers to these questions, but I will give this kid the benefit of the doubt because there was nothing mentioned by the School Board that would make anyone think otherwise.

But I will step out on a limb and say that this coach was looking for a reason to get this kid off the team and created a rule that would validate his decision. And I think it was a bad one. It just goes to show you how petty coach's can be to make such an issue out of something that is of no importance, and seem to overlook the fact that what is important is their players grades, their desire to play, and willingness to cooperate. From the story in the Indy Star, none of these important issues were the problem. So why did the coach not try to make things work out. Because he didn't want this kid on the team. And this coach will never say what the real reason is. It's a travesty. As involved as I am in youth sports, a week doesn't go bye that I dont hear of something like this. What kind of message do we send to the young people is this world when we punish them for something that is irrelevent and petty and don't acknowledge their efforts for getting passing grades and being respectful to our fellow man. And not cutting your hair is not considered disrespectful or defiant. This coach, like the majority of coach's that I know will never gain the respect of their players when their actions aren't based on sound principles. These kid's know it. Their parents know it. Anybody with a brain knows it. So why do these School Boards and athletic directors turn their back on it. They are all educated people. What did they learn in college. I'm sure they didn't take any classes that taught ignorance or immaturity. So now the School Board has got their high priced attornies on the case and they are in the CYA (cover your a**) stage and they are sitting in a meeting room right now as I write this trying to figure out how they can justify the actions of their narrow minded coach and cost the school maybe 40 or 50 thousand dollars in legal fees that could have been prevented had this coach just acted like a mature adult and set his ego aside for 1 day and made some sort of compromise with this kid and his parents. If this coach wanted this kid to play for him he would have made a compromise. What a shame.

Response

Hello Greg, Thank you for your comments and thoughts. Austin's mom has provided some additional information. " Austin was on the honor roll his first 9 weeks at Greensburg this year. He was in several enrichment classes. He is taking Algebra for H.S. credit. He does not have discipline issues, has never been suspended in his school career. He has always started on all the basketball teams he has ever played. On the 7th grade Greensburg Boys Basketball team last year, Austin lead the team in scoring, assists, steals and was 2nd for the team in rebounds. Austin has always been a team player. He always gives great effort when he is on the court, whether at practice or during the game. As a defensive player, he has always been picked by each of his coaches to defend the opposing teams best player. He has been blessed with athletic ability and also is intelligent about the game as well. There is absolutely NO underlying reason that the Varsity basketball coach wanted Austin off the team. Now, he is not perfect and has several faults and areas that we are trying to guide him in and attitude wise, he's your typical teenager."

 

 

Brooke de Lench

Publisher /Editor In Chief

MomsTeam.com

Author:

Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins)

"Clean cut"

Certainly, if anyone should present a "clean cut" image, it would be the pros that so many kids try to emulate (as in "role model"). Yet, so many pros, at least to my eye, present something less than clean cut - and many are approaching anti-social and downright ugly appearances. Yet we allow their right to self-expression, even to the point that it hurts their team-orientation.Hayden's hair is not offensive to anyone but the most bigoted. I wouldn't even call it long. I'm going to hazard a guess that the coach is either a right-wing extremist or is harboring a deep-seated secret that scares him (or both). In either case, he needs help or to find another career.

Rules are rules

It's unfortunate, but the coach was given the authority to dictate grooming policy, and the teen chose to ignore it. The coach has every right to enforce his policy, and if he enforces it fairly, then there is no problem.

Whether his parents gave him permission to wear his hair a given length is not irrelevant to the issue, and I don't see the correlations between this action and hazing or bullying.

Mandating that all players have hair of a certain length does not equate with the actual crimes of hazing and bullying and does a disservice to those who have survived the tortures of hazing and bullying.

The teen was given a choice between getting kicked off the team or complying with the coaches policy, and he chose to get kicked off the team. The coach has to maintain order, or there is no team. What if another teen decided he didn't want to follow another policy, for whatever reason? When does it end? He chose his hair over his sport, and he has no one to blame other than himself and his parents.

Playing sports teaches kids other lessons besides Xs and Os, and I believe that the teen learned a valuable lesson. There are requirements placed on us, and it is our choice whether or not we choose to comply. Businesses have rules, restaurants have rules, the military has rules, and parents have rules.

You can either comply with the rules or deal with the consequences. It's your choice,but as long as there is no discrimination involved, then there is no problem.

Re; Rules

Get rid of the Coach. And get rid of the rule. You missed the whole point Mr. bison4life. This school doesn't even have a mission statement on their website, yet they have a coach with a rule for the length of a kids hair. Not having a mission statement for your athletic program but having a coach that has a rule that pertains to hair length is a statement in itself that states they don't have their priorities in line. This isn't the army, or a job, or a restaurant. Its junoir high basketball. Its an extra curricular activity. Our job as coach's is to have a positive impact on kids. Period. Who benefits from this rule ? The answer is no one.
This coach should not be coaching and he will continue to have a negative impact on more young and innocent souls. The whole point here is not about the rule, it's about the priorities of schools athletic programs.

I'm with bison4life. School

I'm with bison4life. School sports is a privlage, not a right. I'm guessing in reading this article, we get Austin's mom's side and Ms. De Lench's opinion, which is fine. Questions arise however, that if this kid is that good, and it seems he is, I think the coach would want him to be on the team. So something's missing. Also, I don't think it's outlandish for the coach to reqest the kids look a certain way. He's not saying crew cuts, or bald heads. The principal and athletic director oversees the coach, and if they didn't step in and "relax" the rules for this honor student, leading scorer, etc. Then I have to believe something is missing. As far as the whole bullying, hazing, gender sterotyping, c'mon, give me a break. Those accusiations just make this whole thing look silly defeats the credibility of the kid. We really need to get away from shielding kids from every peril they ever face.

Hey Common Sense

Is coaching school sports a privilege or a right.You make no sense and you stand for nothing good. Since you brought up the topic of shielding . How much money do you think the school will pay to sheild this coach's actions. It sounds like you might be a coach yourself. And a typical one at that. Sports are supposed to be fun. You seem to want to take that away.

I will ask the question once again. Who benefits from such a rule ? Please answer this.

evaluateyourcoach.com

Greg, i'm not a coach, I

Greg, i'm not a coach, I have coached youth sports before. The coach was hired, approved, interviewed, whatever by the schools administration and approved by it's school board. He didn't just proclaim himself coach. Stand for nothing good? You can determine that based on one post about a long haired jr. high kid? I'm guessing the school has some type of grooming policy. Is it that wrong for a coach to expect a little more? Mission statement? It's jr. high sports. What if junior wants to wear pink socks and the rest of the team wears white, is that ok? Let coaches, coach!

No. Mr. Covi, I understood the point

Coaches have to have the authority to implement rules and have an expectation of compliance from their players. And as a coach, I would expect you to understand that important fact.
You may disagree with this coach's rule, and that's your prerogative. However that does not make your position right. Maybe your coaching style is more focused on having fun and letting the players call the shots, but this coach appears to have a different style.
We need to stop babying children and teaching them that if they don't like a rule, then the rule should be changed to accommodate them.

How about eliminating all non-fun coaching and sports rules and only make players do what they want to do? Let's reinforce their belief that life is about them, and they not only can ignore all rules that they don't like, but they can also expect to be immune from the consequences because it is Jr HS afterall.

Rules are rules, and if they are applied fairly, then there is no problem.

 

 

Just a thought

I had a question that just came to mind. Again. Who benefits from a rule that limits the length of an athletes hair ? Anyone

No one person benefits from rules

Who benefits from most coach's rules, especially if the primary goal is fun? For that matter, who benefits from rules in general because rules, by there very nature, are designed to regulate behavior, which is not fun. Students have rules that govern their clothing, class behavior, etc. Who benefits from those rules? Who benefits from a student not being able to wear certain types of shirts, shorts, shoes, or dresses to school, especially if their parents allow it?

And to answer your question, the team benefits from any rule that is implemented to build team unity. 

A lesson to learn for all young teenagers

Adults stand firmly in their beliefs regardless of whether it has a positive impact or negative impact on the young people in this world. Dont be discouraged and dont become rebelious if your encounter adversity over adult decisions that impact your life in a negative way. As you can tell from following this post that most adults refuse to answer specific questions when it counters their own beliefs, and they will fight to the bitter end in a rhetorical fashion to stand behind those beliefs. Dont be mad at adults for making rules that dont follow logic.Because you will always be confronted with them.

Some of us adults in the world do stand up for you. And I'm doing my part. Someday you will be an adult and you can make your own rules that will have a positive impact on the world. Stay positive, get good grades, and always respect your fellow man.

The real lesson to be learned

Yes, it was unfortunate that a young man was not able to play a sport that he loved because he disagreed with a coach's rule. However, the young man made that decision fully understanding the consequences of his actions.

Whether the rule was logical or not is debatable, regardless of the passion that others may feel, and unless the rule discriminated against a protected group of people, then the rule should stand and be followed.

Adults and parents set a bad example when they tell children what they want to hear as opposed to what they need to hear.

What that young man wanted to hear was that he was in the right, and the coach has no business dictating his hair length, especially if his parents approved it.

However, what this young man needed to hear was that the coach has a right to make and enforce his rules based on his coaching philosophy and that coaching is not a democracy open to debate or general concensus. And that failure to follow rules is grounds for punishement. And the world is full of rules that we may not like, but not liking them does not determine whether or not they are wrong.

 

And to take this example

And to take this example further. I see many "young" people today getting body piercing and tattoos. This has become more and more accepted in our society than ever.
However, when I see a young adult get a tattoo high on their neck or places where they are easily visable, I can only think that they are potentially closing a door to a future job opportunity. In most of the business world, it's not acceptable to have visable tattoos or your eyebrow or nose pierced. That may change over the next 15-20 years, but as things stand today, it doesn't go.
I can't help but think this young man will someday look back and think it was so silly that he just didn't cut his hair.

Long hair on boys and sports

I have 3 boys one 13 in 8th grade, one 11 in 6th grade and the youngest is 9 in 4th grade.
All 3 of my sons have long hair past the shoulders the oldest having his to the middle of his back and he got to play all 3 sports, football, basketball and the newest for middle school baseball with no problem at all with his coaches. His coaches don't mind boys having long hair either, as long as it is brushed neatly. There were 13 boys on his baseball team, all of which had long hair on the shoulders or longer except for 4 players and won the conference tournament at the end of his season with a record of 21 wins and 3 losses and my son had 3 home runs and pitched a no hitter 3 times. I don't force my boys to cut their hair and his coaches and teachers should let them keep their hair long if the boy wants it long. Your son should stand by his decision and keep his hair long if he wants to, even grow it longer if he wants, My oldest son says to tell your son to keep it long.

Coach Wooden

This kid would not have played for Coach Wooden at UCLA. He told players that if they wanted to have long hair, it was their right. But they would not do it on his team. Coach Hurley at St. Anthony has the same rule, and he is the best high school basketball coach in the country.