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Sikh Basketball Players Battle for Right to Compete in Turbans

Referees forced two Sikhs on India's basketball team to remove their turbans before a game against Japan, citing possible injury to other players.
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Two of India’s top basketball players were stopped from stepping onto the court just moments before the start of the India vs. Japan game at the Asia Cup last Friday.

The reason? Officials said they were breaking International Basketball Federation (FIBA) rules by wearing their turbans.

Referees reportedly told players Amrit Pal Singh and Amjyot Singh -- who are both practicing Sikhs -- that they were violating Article 4.4.2 of the league’s official rules. The statute in question reads, “Players shall not wear equipment (objects) that may cause injury to other players.”

Both players quickly took off their turbans, tied their hair back, and were permitted to return to the game. The Indian team ended up losing to Japan by 23 points. But fans and fellow Sikhs were more upset about the turban ruling than the loss, voicing their displeasure on Twitter with the hashtag #LetSikhsPlay.

“This ruling is especially surprising given that FIFA allows Sikhs to play with turbans, and that we have had Sikhs playing competitive basketball with their turbans in the NBL Canada (Dipanjot Singh) and NCAA (Darsh Preet Singh),” the Sikh Coalition said in a statement.

"I spent a long time advocating for our players the day before the Japan game and finally thought we got the ok for [them] to wear their turbans," India’s coach Scott Flemming told the Indian basketball blog Hoopistani. "I was then told right before the game there was a misunderstanding on what we agreed to. I again pleaded for our players on this ruling. Finally, the FIBA official made the ruling and we had no choice. I would never make our players do anything they were uncomfortable with according to their religious practices. It was up to them.”

This isn’t the first time players have been prohibited from playing in a FIBA basketball game because of religious head-coverings. Last year, the under-18 women’s team from the Maldives -- a majority-Muslim country -- were told that they could not play unless they removed their hijabs. The team decided to forfeit the tournament.

Image: Moon Tae Jong of South Korea passes a ball as Amjyot Singh of India defends during their preliminary round match between South Korea and India at the 26th Asian Basketball Championships in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on Sept. 17, 2011.
Amjyot Singh of India (right) in a game against South Korea at the 2011 Asian Basketball Championships.LIU JIN / AFP - Getty Images file