© 2023 WYPR
20th Anniversary Background
WYPR 88.1 FM Baltimore WYPF 88.1 FM Frederick WYPO 106.9 FM Ocean City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Maryland Girl Victim of Other 'March Madness'

Sarah Elbeshbishi/The Current

The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, known in some circles as March Madness, officially launched last week to run through early April.

But, if you ask Je’Nan Hayes, March Madness didn’t wait for last Thursday to get started. It had already begun.

Hayes is a junior at Watkins Mill High School in Montgomery County. She’s a reserve on the school’s girls basketball team, which had a pretty successful 2017 season, getting all the way to the regional finals of the state tournament.

As the Watkins Mill school newspaper first reported, Hayes, who is Muslim and wears a hijab, a head covering used by female practitioners of the faith, had played in the Wolverines’ first 24 games.

Hayes, who is in her first year playing organized basketball, had worn her hijab in each of those games without an issue.

During the warm-ups of Watkins Mill’s regional final game against Oxon Hill, the Wolverines’ coach, Donita Adams, was told by the lead game official that Hayes needed to provide documented evidence that she had to cover her head for religious reasons. Otherwise, she was ineligible.

Adams checked with the school’s athletic director who said the decision could not be overturned in such a short time.

The game went on and the Wolverines were unable to stay with Oxon Hill. So, at the moment when she inserts reserve players who don’t play often, Adams turned to her bench.

All of them, except for Hayes. When the game ended, Adams went to her player and told her the reason that she hadn’t played.

The Washington Post reported that Hayes broke down in tears. Hayes later told the newspaper quote I felt discriminated against, and I didn’t feel good at all. If it was some reason like my shirt wasn’t the right color or whatever, then I’d be like, Okay. But because of my religion it took it to a whole different level and I just felt that it was not right at all unquote.

It bears noting that the referee who spoke to the coach was correctly following National Federation of State High School Associations rules.

Hayes did need a state-signed waiver. She didn’t have it and her coach, Donita Adams, did the right thing.

But state and local officials said the referee should have taken a looser interpretation of the rules and let Hayes play.

While the rule also applies to Jewish boys who wear yarmulkes, we shouldn’t be so naïve as to miss the underlying reason for why this happened.

When the president of the United States tries not once, but twice, to effectively bar Muslim refugees from entering this country, when people of the Islamic faith find their homes, temples and persons harmed out of inexplicable fear, it shouldn’t be a big surprise that that fear makes its way to a basketball court.

Officials at FIBA will reportedly decide later this year whether to remove international prohibitions against hijabs, turbans yarmulkes and the like.

Let’s hope that by the time we get around to next season, that the only March Madness Je’Nan Hayes experiences is basketball enthusiasm, not un-American fear and bigotry.

And that’s how I see it for this week. 

Milton Kent hosted the weekly commentary Sports at Large from its creation in 2002 to its finale in July 2013. He has written about sports locally and nationally since 1988, covering the Baltimore Orioles, University of Maryland men's basketball, women's basketball and football, the Washington Wizards, the NBA, men's and women's college basketball and sports media for the Baltimore Sun and AOL Fanhouse. He has covered the World Series, the American and National League Championship Series, the NFL playoffs, the NBA Finals and 17 NCAA men's and women's Final Fours. He currently teaches journalism at Morgan State University.