On Saturday, the soccer world’s governing body, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, announced its decision to allow both male and female soccer players to wear religious head covers during their matches, according to CNN. Previously, the wearing of head garments was banned by FIFA, citing the potential risk of injury to the head or neck. This ruling, however, exemplifies FIFA taking a step in the right direction for recognizing the need for religious tolerance in all arenas, sports or otherwise.
“It was decided that female players can cover their heads to play,” said FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke in a statement, according to Haaretz.
The decision, announced to the International Football Association Board in Zurich, came after the expiration of a successful two-year trial period allowing headscarves.
But it hasn’t always been this way. In 2007, FIFA banned headscarves as a safety precaution. As a result, the Iranian women’s soccer team withdrew from its 2011 Olympic qualification match against Jordan in protest.
More relaxation of headdress rules came in July 2013 after a Canadian Sikh community lobbied FIFA to allow turbans to be worn on the soccer field.
Though the decision to allow athletes to observe their own religious practices wouldn’t logically seem to affect the game, past events have suggested otherwise. In a 2010 soccer match, Hapoel Tel Aviv’s Itay Schechter was controversially given a yellow card for celebrating a goal by donning a kippah, a small head cap traditionally worn by observers of the Jewish faith. Though the act of wearing the kippah didn’t have any effect on the game, the decision to punish the player set the unusual precedent that religion is not welcome on the field.
Achieving religious tolerance within society has been a global goal for centuries, and yet such a goal has not been fully realized. The suspension of the ban on religious garments, however, brings society one step closer to allowing freedom of religious expression in one facet of society — sports.
Not permitting athletes to follow their passions simply because they choose to abide by their religious teachings or punishing players for observing religious forms of expression that in no way distract from the game is not only unjust, but it’s also a violation of their right to religious expression. As little importance as a yellow card might seem in the grand scheme of things, the fact that someone was penalized in any way for displaying a piece of his religion is wrong.
In the 1965 World Series, Jewish pitcher Sandy Koufax didn’t pitch in Game 1 in observance of the Jewish High Holiday of Yom Kippur. In Feb. 1995, Houston Rockets’ center Hakeem Olajuwon averaged 29 points per game and was named National Basketball Association Player of the Month, all the while observing the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, during which Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. Religion and sports have enjoyed peaceful coexistence in American professional sports, and FIFA’s decision reinforces this on a global scale. By giving athletes the freedom to express their religious practices, FIFA’s decision further allows players and their supporters’ to showcase their pride in their religious identities.
After protests and dissent, FIFA realized that there was no reason to have such restrictions, and adhered to the needs of sports players around the globe. Though FIFA has taken strides toward the advancement of religious freedom, there is still a lot of work to be done across nations to maintain the necessity for expression of any religion, no matter the place or time.
Yasmeen Kamel is a freshman majoring in business administration.