Ordinarily, teen athletes do not assume the initiative to defend the civil rights of vulnerable minority children. Amid their other activities and interests, teens usually join sports teams to play, and not to take political stands. But when they faced Granby in suburban Montreal on Saturday, June 8, the previously undefeated FC Brossard U14 AA boys soccer team took a stand that helped make life better for dozens of other boys they had never met.
All eighteen Brossard players wore head turbans throughout the game. Under normal circumstances, the turbans might have drawn a few snickers before soon being forgotten, but circumstances were not normal that night. Brossard lost the game, 2-1, but they won a resounding victory for religious tolerance that resonated in their native Quebec and across Canada.
"They Can Play in Their Back Yard"
By game time, Canadian youth soccer was in turmoil because the Quebec Soccer Federation (FSQ), the province's governing body, had sidelined between 100 and 200 boys. Nobody suggested that any of the boys had ever played dirty. Nobody suggested that any had ever violated the rules of the game. The boys were banished from organized youth soccer for only one reason - their religious beliefs left them unable to remove their turbans. They are Sikhs, whose faith requires men and boys to wear a turban, even when they play sports.
In early April the Canadian Soccer Association, the sport's national governing body, had directed provincial and territorial associations to permit Sikh players to wear turbans (or patkas, the smaller head coverings that many young Sikhs prefer). The Association, however, had only limited authority to enforce its directive. In nine of Canada's ten provinces and in the nation's three territories, the soccer governing bodies complied and Sikh youngsters of all ages played alongside their teammates without objection or incident.
The sole holdout was the Quebec Soccer Federation, whose director general dismissively told the province's Sikh parents that they and their children "ha[d] no choice" but to decide between faith and soccer. Children who chose faith "can play in their backyard," she said, "but not with official referees, not in the official rules of soccer."
A "Rogue Decision"
Once news of the Quebec Soccer Federation's mass benching hit the print and social media, the body defended its ban on turbans as necessary for player safety, even though its director general admitted that no medical evidence supported any safety concerns. She also admitted that no injuries to Sikh children or any opponent had ever been attributed to the headwear. "The point is we don't know," she explained, "and because we don't know we don't want to take any chances." No other provincial or territorial soccer governing body anywhere else in Canada held any such qualms.
To anyone who has ever watched a youth soccer game, the Quebec Soccer Federation's speculation about unsafe cloth turbans appeared baseless and even malicious. Some observers suggested that Quebec's defiance reflected animosity that some leaders of its French-speaking majority held toward a visible minority who look different from most other Quebecers. Cultural diversity might seem to weaken Quebec's ethnic and linguistic identity in the province's sometimes tense political relations with Canada's English-speaking majority.
The Toronto Star editorialized that the Quebec Soccer Federation's "rogue decision" reflected "a bigoted stance that has no medical, statistical or legal backing of any kind." "If the FSQ wants to continue along this track," the editorial continued, "they do so entirely alone, and in defiance of a world that has passed them by, as well as common decency."
"What Was More Important Than This Game?"
If the cloud cast over Canadian youth soccer had a silver lining, it was the overwhelming national and international support that Sikhs received once news outlets reported that their children were being denied full and fair opportunity to play. Brossard's U14 AA soccer team, which had no Sikh players on its roster, was one of the first voices to step forward.
A day before the Granby game, Brossard coach Ihab Leheta called his players aside to discuss the FSQ's stance. "I told them you can either say, ‘It's not my problem,' or you could decide to do something to help out." "I asked them what was more important than this game. One said school, another said family, and then someone said injustice."
Brossard's players may never have heard of 18th-century English writer Samuel Johnson, but they acted on his credo: "An injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere." With their parents' support, the players went to the local Sikh temple the next morning to borrow twenty orange scarves that they wore as turbans in the game a few hours later.
The Quebec Federation's effective ban on Sikh youngsters had not yet prodded other youth or adult teams to action, but a few quickly followed Brossard's lead and announced plans to don turbans. To "ensure soccer remains accessible to the largest number of Canadians," the Canadian Soccer Association enforced its anti-discrimination bylaw by suspending the Quebec Federation's teams from national and international competition.
On June 14, the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the sport's world governing body, affirmed that Sikh turbans were no cause for excluding players at any level of soccer. Finding itself on the defensive amid mounting criticism, the Quebec Soccer Federation rescinded its ban on turbans a day later and scurried to neutralize what the Toronto Star called "a source of international embarrassment for the province."
"The Canada We Want Our Children to Inherit"
Prejudice may stem from race, ethnicity, religion or other distinguishing characteristic that should sideline or otherwise disadvantage no one. For those of us who value athletic competition as a powerful engine for the national good, prejudice in sports needs to be resisted whenever it surfaces, particularly when the direct victims are children.
Resistance can be particularly effective when the stoutest voices are other children who, like FC Brossard's U14 AA soccer team, send their elders a message about tolerance. The team's selfless, powerful gesture squarely opposed Quebec's Premier (the equivalent of a state governor here in the United States), who defended the provincial soccer body's determination to resist the Canadian Soccer Association's equal opportunity mandate. By the time the Brossard team helped marshal public opinion, their message had resonated throughout the nation and Quebec became a better place to play youth soccer.
After the Quebec Soccer Federation reversed course, Member of Parliament Justin Trudeau singled out the FC Brossard U14 AA soccer team for recognition. Wearing a turban before a national audience, he said that "Here in Canada we are proud of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms that guarantees and protects religious freedom. . . . I would like to applaud those who have taken a strong stance on this issue, such as the Brossard soccer team that stood in solidarity with the Sikh community. They represent the Canada we want our children to inherit, one that does not tolerate division or fear."
It is one thing for adults to help shape the nation they want to leave to their children. It is quite another for the children themselves to help shape their own inheritance.
Sources: Sue Montgomery, Brossard Team Dons Turbans in Solidarity, Montreal Gazette, June 13, 2013; Sam Borden & Ian Austin, Canadian Conflict Grows Out of Quebec Soccer Federation's Ban on Turbans, N.Y. Times, June 11, 2013; Turban Ban Exposed as Bigoted Stance It Is, Toronto Star, June 15, 2013, at S1 (editorial)