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, including 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).