Attorneys at Lawyers for Civil Rights called on the National Federation of State High School Associations to change its sports regulations after a white referee last spring told three Black basketball players at Clinton Middle School they needed to tie back their braids or sit out the game.
In a letter sent Tuesday, attorneys cautioned the organization’s sports director Lindsey Atkinson that a policy mandating hair “adornments” be “securely fastened close to the head” could be too easily misinterpreted to discriminate against Black players. They alleged the policy violates the Massachusetts Crown Act, which prohibits race-based discrimination involving “hair texture, hair type, hair length and protective hairstyles” such as braids, dreadlocks, or hair coverings.
“The broad language of [the policy] invites different interpretations that can be applied in a discriminatory manner — as was the case here, where the referee singled these players out because of their race,” the letter said. “No white players were given the same instruction, including those whose hair fell past their shoulders.”
Atkinson did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Erika Richmond, the lead author of the letter, said in an interview with the Globe that the referee’s application of the rule to target certain students was “beyond upsetting” for them.
“Middle school is a pivotal time in our lives, when we are formulating our identities, and hair plays a huge part in our identities, especially as Black people,” she said. “So to have your identity attacked at a time when it’s still forming, it’s traumatizing.”
The families of the three Black basketball players first contacted Lawyers for Civil Rights after a game earlier this year and described how the referee told their daughters they would be “ineligible to play” unless they found a way to tie back their boxbraids. Richmond said the families of the girls, who are in seventh and eighth grade, frantically searched their cars and purses for an elastic or rubber band, and were outraged that several white players with long hair were allowed to play without pulling back their hair, too.
Richmond said parents complained to Clinton Middle School officials after the game, but were told there was nothing that could be done because the school was bound by the national policy.
According to the lawyers’ letter, the referee incorrectly used a National Federation of State High School Associations rule about hair clips, bows, and other “adornments” to say that the girls’ hair posed an “increase[d] risk” to the other athletes, making them feel ashamed of how they wear their hair.
“Braids are simply hair — not hair-control devices or adornments,” the letter said. “Despite their talent, this incident has made the girls question whether they wanted to play basketball — in any organized team setting — in the future.”
The attorneys called on the association to revise its high school sports rule to specifically clarify that it does not apply to natural hair, and to train referees and other officials “on the Crown Act and on proper enforcement of any ... rules pertaining to hair.”
Massachusetts adopted the Crown Act last year, after at least one incident of hair-based discrimination at a school. In 2017, two Black students at the Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden were given detention, and threatened with suspension, because administrators said their braids violated the school’s dress code.
“Unfortunately, they don’t have any sensitivity to diversity at all,” the girls’ mother told the Globe at the time.
Tuesday’s letter gave the association 14 days to respond. Richmond warned that if the federation does not agree to a rule change, “all legal options are on the table.” Because the federation is a national organization, Richmond said the goal is to spur more inclusive high school sports regulations not just in Massachusetts, but across the country.
“We want to prevent this from happening everywhere,” she said. “It’s infuriating to see how Black children continue to be punished for simply existing, when they deserve the same space to formulate their identities and grow, just like any other child.”