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HS softball player forced to cut hair per NFHS rules to keep playing: 'I feel humiliated, embarrassed'

·5-min read

A Black softball player was forced to cut her hair to remove hair beads in order to keep playing in a high school game in Durham, North Carolina, last month. 

Two high school umpires approached Nicole Pyles and her Hillside High School coaches in the second inning of a senior night game against rival school Jordan on April 19, The News & Observer reported. Citing a National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) rule, the umpires told her she was not allowed to play with hair beads. 

Pyles decided to cut her hair in order to keep playing and is heard on video asking for scissors in the dugout. 

“It was humiliating,” Nicole Pyles told The News & Observer via Zoom on Wednesday. “Why do I have to take away from myself just to play this game where we are actually doing well? I’m embarrassed because you pick on me in front of all these people for no reason.”

The incident, investigated by Durham Public Schools and the N.C. High Schools Athletics Association, has ignited calls for the NCHSAA and NFHS to review their policies. 

HS softball player forced to cut hair during game

It was senior night at Hillside and the Hornets' 10th game of the season. Pyles was in the on-deck circle ready to lead off the bottom of the second inning when Jordan High's first-base coach, who is white, approached the base umpire, who is also white, via the News & Observer. 

The umpire went to the Hillside dugout to join the home plate umpire, who is Black and was already there. Pyles said the home plate umpire spoke with her, with the base umpire behind her, and told her the rules. 

The NFHS rule stipulates that players are allowed to use bobby pins, barrettes and hair clips, but are not allowed to wear plastic visors, bandannas and hair beads. 

“At this point, I feel humiliated, embarrassed because everybody was just trying to figure out what to do,” Pyles said, via the News & Observer. “I know these beads have to come out. There’s nothing I can do to stop this.”

She is heard on the Hillside game feed calling for scissors. The game went on, with Jordan winning, 23-12. Pyles said she felt particularly upset at the way the white base umpire treated the situation because he had called previous Hillside games she played. 

“I was upset,” she said. “He had seen me play multiple times ... if it was a rule that’s that important why wasn’t it enforced the first time you spoke to me or you saw me come on the field or off the field or any of that?”

Her father, Julius Pyles, was not at the game but contacted the school the following day and wrote a letter to the state's high school association's supervisor for officials. 

Push to change hair style rules 

A joint investigation by the school and state athletics association found that the umpires made the ask on their own without any input form the Jordan High coaching staff, per the report. 

Durham Public Schools, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and the Pyles family are putting pressure on the NCHSAA and NFHS to change the rule that seem fair, but are "culturally biased and inappropriate," the school system wrote in a statement this week. 

“DPS supports our student-athletes and their right to self-expression in a manner befitting their culture, consistent with safety in training and competition,” the statement said, via the N&O. “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. We frown on any rule or policy that promotes cultural insensitivity or does not reflect the ideals and principles of DPS and our employees.”

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice called on city and state officials to “pass policies that eradicate all forms of anti-Black biases in schools," via the N&O. The city of Durham passed a non-discrimination policy that covers hairstyles in January, and nearby counties and municipalities followed suit. Statewide bills were entered, but not passed into law. 

Player: Hair beads rule unnecessary in softball

In the Zoom interview on the N&O website, Pyles said she understands rules barring hair clips on the forehead since it applies to everyone, but a rule banning hair beads seems unnecessary. If they're close to the skin or tied up into a ponytail or bun, they aren't in danger of hitting anyone, especially in softball, she said. 

“I want to see the rule changed, specifically the beads rule,” she said, adding the incident, “embarrassed me, hurt me, hurt my family, embarrassed my teammates on their senior night in front of their families, their friends, previous Hillside students who played at Hillside years ago and graduated college.”

“I don’t feel like their first time coming back to watch a softball game they need to see me being discriminated against at a softball game, having to cut my hair just to play,” Nicole Pyles told the N&O.

The situation is similar to the New Jersey wrestler who was forced to cut his dreadlocks to compete in a wrestling match in December of 2018. The incident went viral. More than a year later, the NFHS announced major rule changes that included a modification to the hair length restriction rule. It fully removed the rule requiring a wrestler's hair not "extend below the top of an ordinary shirt collar." 

The change, which went into effect this school year, not only impacted Black wrestlers, but female wrestlers as well in a sport that is seeing a boom in female participants. 

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