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School district calls for review of hair policy after Black teen was forced to cut braids during game

The 16-year-old was forced to cut her hair beads out in between a softball game after being told she had to remove them to continue playing for her team.

School district calls for review of hair policy after Black teen was forced to cut braids during game
Cover Image Source: YouTube/Good Morning America

It was Nicole Pyles' last home softball game of the season. The sophomore at Durham Hillside High School in North Carolina was standing near home plate with a bat on her shoulder when one of the umpires stopped the game. The umpire informed Pyles' coach that if the 16-year-old wanted to continue playing for her team, she would have to do something about her hair. The Black teen's hair—which was braided with beads and tied in a bun at the bottom of her neck—had become a focal point of the April 19 game after a coach on the opposing Jordan High School softball team claimed they couldn't see her jersey number, Pyles told CNN



Although she initially tucked the braids into her sports bra and continued playing, the hair beads were brought up once again later that same inning when the coach on the opposing team pointed them out to the umpire. As per the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), which helps provide uniform playing rules for high school athletics across the nation, student-athletes are prohibited from wearing hair beads, bandanas, and plastic visors on the softball field. So despite playing four prior games with the beads, the umpire cited this rule while giving Pyles two choices: Take out the beads or don't play.



"I felt disrespected and I felt humiliated," Pyles told Good Morning America. "I truly felt like in my heart that it was not a choice… That's my team, so I will stand by them no matter what. Beads are not going to be the reason we don't win a game." Her teammates gathered around, attempting to take the beads out of the hair. However, some of the beads were wrapped so tightly around her braids that they had to cut some of the hair out in order to remove all the beads. "I felt dehumanized," Pyles said.



"My hair means a lot to me... I'm not going to let braids take away from who I am on the field and off the field, but it is a part of me and no, I don't want that to be stripped away from me," she added. The teen's family is now attempting to get the rule changed. "Everyone's hiding behind the rules of the game," said Pyles' father, Julius. "If there was a rule, it should've been applied in the beginning, (not in) their last game."



The enraged father revealed that he has reached out to multiple people with Durham Public Schools (DPS) and the North Carolina High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) to ensure that no other Black student-athlete faces similar repercussions because of their hair. The NCHSAA backed the umpire, with the association commissioner Que Tucker telling WRAL: "This is not a new rule, and when the violation was noticed by an umpire, the proper determination of illegal equipment was verified." However, DPS—which does not prohibit hair beads in the classroom—condemned the "culturally biased and problematic" ban on hair beads and called for the association to revise its hair policy.



"Durham Public Schools supports our students' right to free expression and opposes unreasonable or biased restrictions on Black women's hairstyles," the district said in a statement. "We believe the blanket ban on hair beads is culturally biased and problematic. We support our student, Nicole Pyles, and believe this rule should be amended." The district urged the NCHSAA and the NFHS to review the policy, calling it "culturally biased and inappropriate."



Dr. Karissa Niehoff, executive director of NFHS, admitted the incident could have been handled differently. "When there's a rule that might be of concern to a young person, there's always a way to communicate... Perhaps even let the contest occur, then afterward, deal with the communication if there's a misunderstanding or if there's been inconsistency in rule application," she said. "It's most unfortunate that her experience was one of the multiple games where it was okay, and now suddenly it's not okay, and how that was communicated and then played out is just extremely unfortunate and that would never be our intention for that to happen."



However, Pyles' father does not believe the school district or the sports officials have done enough to address the incident. "When my child came home and I looked at her head, all it brought me back was memories of stuff that I said I never want my children to endure. And all the [school officials] are hiding behind is the damn rule, a rule that a white man comes up with" Julius Pyles said. "I want the world to know how I feel as a Black man, and as a father that my child had to be ridiculed in order to play a simple game."



The NFHS Softball Rules Committee will meet from June 14 to June 16 for its annual assessment of its guidelines where, Neihoff said, the NFHS will look at its rules to see how it can be more inclusive to reflect a more diverse body of student-athletes across the country. "We've become a learning organization we're watching our kids become more diverse… So we're having to really consider things that are within our rules with a new lens, and that one might be cultural, as we go through the rules considerations and change process. We hope that everyone involved in implementing a sports experience can implement rules but do so with some common sense, and a consideration for how rules might be communicated. We would never intend for a young person to be feeling anything in the way of humiliation, embarrassment, certainly, an affront to their culture or their race or their ethnicity, their religious background," she said.

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