It was her last home softball game of the season, and Nicole Pyles, a sophomore at Durham Hillside High School in North Carolina, had just hit a double. Her hair, braided with beads and tied in a bun at the bottom of her neck, was the last thing on her mind.
It quickly, however, became a focal point of the April 19 game. First, a coach on the opposing team claimed they couldn’t see her jersey number, Pyles said. Pyles, 16, said she tucked the braids into her sports bra and continued playing. But then, later that same inning, it came up again.
A coach on the opposing team pointed out the beads to the umpire, Pyles said. Beads in hair, according to the rulebook, weren’t permitted. So despite playing four prior games with the beads, the umpire gave Pyles a choice: Either take the beads out, or don’t play.
“I asked why is this now an issue … and he said it’s a rule, there’s nothing he can do,” Pyles told CNN.
So Pyles’ said her teammates gathered around, attempting to take the beads out of the hair. Because they were wound so tightly, they had to cut some of the hair out in order to remove all the beads, Pyles said.
“I felt dehumanized,” Pyles said.
Now, Pyles’ family is attempting to get the rule changed.
“Everyone’s hiding behind the rules of the game,” Julius Pyles, Pyles’ father, told CNN. “If there was a rule, it should’ve been applied in the beginning, (not in) their last game.”
The rule is ‘culturally biased and inappropriate,’ school district says
Pyles’ experience is a familiar one.
Nicole said that her team was winning at the top of the second inning when an umpire told her coach that her hairstyle covered the number six on her jersey, according to an interview she did this week with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which is representing her.
The teenager said that she had worn the same style — box braids with clear beads on the end, popular among Black women — in five previous games without any complaints from the opposing team or officials, according to the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. Her hair reached just past her shoulder blades.
Nicole, a sophomore, said that she had tried to tuck hair inside her shirt but was then told by an umpire that doing so was not good enough.
“That’s when the ump had basically said to my coach that either I take the beads out or I can’t play,” she said in the interview. “This is the second inning going on the third, and my beads are now a problem?”
To stay in the game, Nicole cut her beads and braids with help from teammates.
“I felt embarrassed and I most definitely felt disrespected,” she said. “I just felt like the world was just staring at me. Why me? Why anybody for that fact?”
Her father, Julius Pyles, said in the video that he felt his daughter had been discriminated against and that she and the whole team “should have been protected.”
“Fix the policies for the Black children so they won’t be discriminated against,” he added.
Mr. Pyles and Nicole said they wanted an apology from the high school softball coaches, the two umpires from the game, and the National Federation of State High School Associations, according to the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which is asking the national athletic association “to pass policies that eradicate all forms of anti-Black biases in schools.” The nonprofit said it defends and advances communities of color and economically disadvantaged communities in the South.
In a statement, the North Carolina High School Athletic Association defended the action taken by the umpire, saying that it followed a rule from the National Federation of State High School Associations, which provides uniform playing rules nationally.
The state athletic association cited softball rule 3-2-5, “which states that ‘plastic visors, bandannas, and hair beads are prohibited,’” Que Tucker, commissioner of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association, said in the statement. Players are allowed to use bobby pins, barrettes, and hair clips, according to the association.
“This is not a new rule, and when the violation was noticed by an umpire, the proper determination of illegal equipment was verified as supported by N.F.H.S. rule,’’ she said.
“We empathize with the student-athlete and her experience,’’ Ms. Tucker added. “It is truly unfortunate, as we believe this situation should never have occurred.”
In a statement, Durham Public Schools said it “supports our students’ right to free expression and opposes unreasonable or biased restrictions on Black women’s hairstyles.”
In one of the most famous examples, a Black high school wrestler in New Jersey was forced to cut his dreadlocks off in order to compete in a tournament, after being told his hair wasn’t in compliance with league regulations.
In 2020, another Black high school student was told that if he didn’t cut his dreadlocks to comply with the district’s dress code, he wouldn’t be able to walk at graduation. And there have been similar incidents all across the country.
Julius Pyles says he has reached out to multiple people with Durham Public Schools and the North Carolina High School Athletic Association. Though DPS has publicly supported Pyles, the NCHSAA has not.
“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 Wednesday, regarding the April game. “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 went on to encourage the NCHSAA and the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), of which NCHSAA is a member and thus dictating rules across North Carolina high school sports, to review the policy, calling it “culturally biased and inappropriate.”
The rule may be addressed next month, the national organization says
But Commissioner Que Tucker, of the NCHSAA, stated that the rule is “not new.”
“When the violation was noticed by an umpire, the proper determination of illegal equipment was verified as supported by NFHS Rule,” she said in a statement to CNN. “Further, according to NFHS Softball Rule 3-5-1, prior to the start of a contest, it is the responsibility of each coach to verify to the plate umpire that all his or her players are legally equipped and that players and equipment are in compliance with all NFHS rules.”
Tucker called the experience “truly unfortunate,” but said the coach’s duty is to ensure players are aware of the rules before playing.
The rule regarding beads in hair was first enacted in 2012, according to Karissa Niehoff, executive director of the NFHS. It was instituted to “minimize the risk of injury” to athletes during competition, the organization said.
Though the NFHS did not say if the rule would be amended, Niehoff did say the NFHS Softball Rules Committee will “address hair beads and other adornments at its annual meeting next month.”
The rule as it stands, though, is discriminatory, Julius Pyles said.
“It’s 2021, and now my child is being a part of something that should be dead and gone. I didn’t serve this country to then be discriminated against,” said Julius Pyles, a veteran.
Durham, one of the largest cities in North Carolina, has already adopted an ordinance that bans hair discrimination in the workplace, inspired by the CROWN Act, a bill moving through the state legislature that would make hair discrimination illegal. And though Durham Public Schools supported the resolution, it only applies to places of employment.