Rules Are for Schmucks : Religion Invades Basketball

Photo by marinini / 123RF

For long-suffering USA men’s sports fans, the FIBA Basketball World Cup comes at an opportune moment. Forget needing to content ourselves with the “moral victory” of a draw, or even a narrow loss, against the world’s top soccer teams. USA 110, Finland 55—now there’s a scoreline! We invented this game, we’re awfully good at it, and even though we don’t dominate as we did in the days of Michael Jordan’s Dream Team, we’re at least narrow favorites this year to bring home another gold medal. Cheering for our guys is a great way to get your mind off the problems of ISIS psychopaths, Catholic special pleaders, and Christian Right evangelicals who dominate so much of the rest of the news.

Alas, the unending quest for God industry special privilege has found a way to worm itself into the simple pleasure of watching a basketball game. Muslim and Sikh players from India are demanding the right to ignore one of the longstanding rules of the game, that players may wear nothing other than a narrow sweatband on their heads. Their religion, they say, mandates the wearing of turbans, and their superstitions are more important than the rules of basketball.

The purpose of the headwear rule is one of safety. If you play basketball wearing a hard-brimmed baseball cap, for example, it’s easy to imagine causing serious damage during a rebound collision. The Muslim and Sikh players argue that a turban is different, because it is softer. It can also fall off, though, creating another hazard in a game situation that has enough unavoidable hazards as it is, without adding in the avoidable ones.

FIBA promised to address the issue at its August 27 board meeting, shortly before the games began. They addressed it by kicking the can down the road, saying that the new FIBA president should be given time to work on the issue before a decision is reached. Naturally, this didn’t appease the special pleaders, and the drumbeat for religious privilege will continue.

(I can’t wait until some religion insists that its basketball players should get four points for making a shot, because four is a sacred number.)

The same issue has arisen in soccer, especially among Muslim women. Whole teams, such as that of Iran, have refused to compete unless they are allowed to cover their heads. The international body governing that sport recently caved in, by allowing women to wear a hijab while playing. The exception is not for all ostensibly “safe” headgear however—it’s only for hijabs worn by Muslims. So if a woman wants to express her commitment to Islam, she can do so; if she wants to express her commitment to a political party, to a cause like fighting breast cancer, or simply her own personal fashion sense by wearing some other type of soft, safe garment on her head, she cannot.

Not only is the soccer headgear exemption (which will undoubtedly be mimicked by FIBA, once they get around to it) limited to religious expression, it’s limited to one particular religion. So Jews complained, and men are now allowed to wear yarmulkes during international games. Are Pastafarians going to be allowed to wear colanders while they play, as they now can for some driver’s license photos? Colanders with long handles might cause a problem, but if the Flying Spaghetti Monster is not offended by removing them, a plastic colander ought to be as safe as a turban—and may even provide the wearer with some protection against concussion.

If you Google “FIBA headgear rule,” you will see near-unanimous support for FIBA (the international basketball governance organization) to change its rules to accommodate religious malcontents, both in the articles themselves and in the comments. The FIBA board is vilified as stodgy old cranks, or even committed Muslim-haters. Nowhere, though, do I see any complaints about the God experts who make the headgear rules, and why they can’t write in an exception for basketball or soccer players. They make exceptions for other activities. For example, Muslim soldiers on jihad are allowed to break the Ramadan fast before battle, so they can have more strength for slaughter. Why not basketball players?

Realistically, the safety issue is a makeweight argument. It’s not the tiny fraction of a percentage point safer these games would be without any headwear that’s the real problem, it’s the undermining of the nature of sport itself. Sport is a profoundly humanist activity pitting one human’s earthly talents against another, or better yet one team that needs to cooperate seamlessly to succeed against another. Though it doesn’t always do so, it can bring out the absolute best in us, pushing our physical, mental, and emotional capacities beyond what we thought possible. Sport is not about the supernatural; it’s about what works, here and now. I read once about a baseball player who took his time getting into the batter’s box so he could cross himself, close his eyes, and say a prayer. After he finished that, got his gloves adjusted, his feet planted properly, his bat cocked, and was finally ready to play, the catcher called time and stepped out of his spot, to say his own prayer. As he stepped back in, he told the batter “Now that we’re even with God, let’s play the game.”

Dragging in supernatural elements—or any other non-sport elements, like politics—sullies the purity of the contest, just as watching a congregant attempt a free-throw during a sacrament might sully the purity of a religious service.

The closest thing I can think of to a silver lining here is to consider Turkey, a nation drifting ever faster away from the modern secular vision of Atatürk and toward the Islamism of neighboring Iran, whose support for Syrian rebels has now brought us the spectacle of ISIS beheadings and genocide. USA 98, Turkey 77. Take that, imams!