Any time a school basketball coach requires his young men's hair to be above their eyebrows, collars and ears, it's just a matter of time before some player complains about the rule. And considering the popularity of hairstyles such as dreadlocks and cornrows, it won't be surprising if African Americans are among the loudest protesters — although long-haired white players who idolize the likes of NBA All-Star Steve Nash might also be opposed.
But whether the rule affects black players more than white players is beside the point. The real question is whether it's appropriate for coaches to make hairstyles a factor in who stays on the team and who's dismissed. Patrick and Melissa Hayden recently filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Indianapolis, arguing that the Greensburg Junior High team's haircut policy should be declared unconstitutional. Their 14-year-old son was kicked off the team last fall after refusing to cut his hair in compliance with the team rules. The Haydens contend that the policy violates their son's rights and also discriminates by gender because it doesn't apply to female players. They're suing because the coach and school officials wouldn't change the rule.
"What they're trying to do here is teach [their son] a life lesson, which simply is that you fight for what's right," Ron Frazier, the Haydens' attorney, told the Indianapolis Star. "This is classic David versus Goliath, and they want their son to understand that."
I fear they're teaching him a totally different lesson, one closer to Homer and Bart than David and Goliath. This is a classic example of selfish, spoiled individuals who believe rules shouldn't apply to them, at least not before litigation to try to get their way. The Haydens should want their son to understand that life is full of choices and consequences — great and small — applicable to both rights and privileges. They should also want him to grasp the difference between those last two concepts.
Courts understand the distinction quite well, which is why they generally give schools leeway in grooming policies for extracurricular activities, versus generally ruling in favor of students when it comes to actual schooling. Students have a constitutional right to an education, not a spot on the squad. Being kicked off a team for long hair isn't the same as being kicked out of school, the latter being a battle worth fighting if a school takes that action. I agree with the federal judge in Missouri who upheld a hair-grooming policy in 2003 but also wrote that the rule forbidding cornrows was "asinine and stupid."
I wouldn't mind if my players wore dreads or braids if I were a coach. But if any of them insisted on "sagging," they wouldn't stay on my team very long. They'd have to choose what meant more to them: being on the team or walking around with their pants hanging off their butts. Likewise, the Hayden boy had a choice between playing basketball and keeping his long hair. That's a valuable lesson in itself, teaching youngsters about priorities, concessions and repercussions.
Clearly, coaches can abuse their power in such situations by creating overly rigid policies that might — intentionally or not — affect one segment of the student body more than another. But you likely wouldn't want your child to play for someone like that, anyway. The rules set by coaches who are interested in building character and winning games shouldn't be too unreasonable. For me, it would be no sagging. For someone else, it might be no hair past the collar. Either way, that sacrifice shouldn't be a deal breaker for youngsters who really want to play ball.
Deron Snyder is an award-winning journalist who covers sports, politics and pop culture; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.