On April 29th, Jason Collins wrote a first-person essay for Sports Illustrated that began simply and succinctly.
I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.
The statement was celebrated, not because the sexual orientation of an athlete is of great importance, but by virtue of Collins promoting a principle that many of us accept: Sports are to be indiscriminate. Skin color, biological makeup, personal preferences and interests don’t matter. All that does is whether or not you can play. And that’s something that absolutely everyone should have the right to find out.
In something so achievement-based as sports, it’s surprising that this ideal isn’t more widespread. As unfortunate as it is, we seldom go a week without learning of a professional athlete who said something hurtful, a spectator who did something ignorant, or a governing body acting in way that excludes rather than includes.
The most recent of these regretful incidents is occurring in Quebec, where the province’s soccer federation has decided to ban turban-wearing Sikh children from participating in sanctioned competitions. Brigitte Frot, the director-general of the Quebec Soccer Federation (QSF), was asked last week what she would tell a five-year-old boy in a turban who shows up to register to play soccer with his friends. She replied:
They can play in their backyard. But not with official referees, not in the official rules of soccer. They have no choice.
The province’s stance contravenes a directive from the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA), which altered an existing rule that permits Islamic females to wear hijabs, to also allow turbans, patkas and keski. The QSF, the only provincial body to not accept the rule change, has dismissed criticism that their stance has anything to do with religious rights, claiming that the policy is based on concern for player safety. The provincial federation’s supporters, including Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, also emphasize that FIFA doesn’t expressly allow turbans.
What’s not mentioned is that the world governing body of soccer doesn’t specifically ban turbans, either.
According to Law 4 of FIFA’s Laws of the Game, “A player must not use equipment or wear anything that is dangerous to himself or another player (including any kind of jewelry).”
On Monday, the CSA suspended the QSF for failing to comply with its rules. The discipline ensures that amateur matches played within Quebec are no longer recognized by the CSA and FIFA. Inviting comparisons to past dealings between other central government bodies and Quebec’s regional authorities, Premier Marios claimed that the QSF is autonomous, and well within its rights to establish separate rules without concern for the policies of the national association.
It would seem that FIFA, who considers the QSF to be under the jurisdiction of the CSA, disagrees.
The dispute might be settled, or at least easier to understand if there was a single study that proved turbans on the soccer pitch to offer any bit of danger. However, there’s no evidence to support such a claim. In place of evidence, we get a lot of posturing over provincial and religious rights that will lead to the exclusion of as many as 200 Sikh soccer players whose religious beliefs require them to wear their traditional headgear.
The discrimination is made all the more frustrating by Quebec’s illogical shifting of the goalposts. The province – whose demographics still feature a strong religious tradition of its own, and an even stronger uncertainty in dealing with minorities – has no evidence to support the initial justification for their policy being based on a need to protect players. With no proof to back their claim, it becomes a matter of aligning their rules with FIFA’s. When FIFA’s laws prove ambiguous (at best), the issue at play becomes autonomy. Of course, the wonderful irony in this case is that FIFA, whose rules were so important in the previous argument, don’t recognize the QSF’s autonomy.
So, now, Sikh soccer players in Quebec have gone from being pawns in a game of bureaucratic oversight at best / religious intolerance at worst, to being held hostage by Canada’s longest running dispute. However, the two solitudes are not on equal footing in this battle. In claiming autonomy in its right to play soccer the way it sees fit, Quebec is acting intolerant to a distinct society within its own borders. It’s a blatantly hypocritical stance.
Worse, though, is its misuse of sports as a means to exclude. As we witnessed less than two months ago, sports possess the wonderful capability to include everyone. Once that’s taken away, it becomes a diminished practice. The QSF’s questionably motivated stubbornness has managed to discriminate against a religious group, sour relations with its country’s governing body and diminish the sport its supposed to oversee in its region.
Add up the virtues of all its constantly shifting arguments as to why turbans must be banned, and compare this minuscule collection of merit to all that the QSF has lost with this ridiculous stance. Now, remember that above all these things – once we see through the preposterous sporting bureaucracy – Quebec is digging its trenches to support its right to stop certain children from playing a sport. It’s at this point we should all wish to have a means to cover our heads in shame for tolerating such a complete and utter lack of common sense.