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'I just felt so embarrassed.' Durham student says she was forced to cut her braids during softball game

Posted May 12, 2021 7:50 p.m. EDT
Updated May 13, 2021 5:39 p.m. EDT

— A Durham high school softball player is demanding an end to hair discrimination in schools after she said she was forced to cut her hair during a game.

The incident happened on April 19 at Hillside High School during a game against Jordan High School.

“The umps came up to my coach asking about my beads. I was just like, well, it’s fine. I’ll tuck them and put them away,” said sophomore Nicole Pyles.

It was the top of the second inning when she said her team was winning, and the umpire noticed her knotless braids with beads. It’s a style she said she's worn before at games.

“When I came back to hit again, it was brought up that there was another issue,” she said. “That they couldn’t see my number, but now it’s a safety issue or a violation, whatever they want to call it."

Pyles said she was told she had to remove the beads in line with the National Federation of State High School Associations policy, or she couldn’t finish the game.

“My team, all of my friends were cutting out some of my beads. They snatched some of the beads out of my hair,” described Pyles. “I felt just so embarrassed and disrespected and just distraught at that point.”

Nicole’s dad, Julius Pyles, said he contacted all parties involved the next day.

“I was deeply hurt because my child, none of those girls, should have had to endure that type of behavior,” he added.

N.C. High School Athletic Association Commissioner Que Tucker released the following statement on Wednesday about the incident:

“The NCHSAA is aware of the report that a young lady at Hillside High School cut her hair to remove hair beads in order to stay in the game against Jordan High School on April 19, 2021. The NCHSAA is a member of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) which is the organization that helps provide uniform playing rules for high school athletics across the nation. As a member of the NFHS, the NCHSAA follows all NFHS playing rules and regulations, including Softball rule 3-2-5 which states that ‘Plastic visors, bandanas and hair-beads are prohibited.’

“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 NFHS rule. 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.

“We empathize with the student athlete and her experience. It is truly unfortunate, as we believe this situation should never have occurred. The NCHSAA expectation is that coaches will know the playing rules and ensure that their players are also aware of them prior to participating in any athletic contest.”

Four months ago, Durham became one of the first cities in the state to ban discrimination based on hairstyle in the workplace. Durham Public Schools released a statement late Wednesday citing its support for the policy.

“Durham Public Schools supports our students’ right to free expression and opposes unreasonable or biased restrictions on Black women’s hairstyles,” the statement reads.

“We really want Durham Public Schools and the county to not only have the hair act for employment and housing but to extend that to the classrooms and into the field, so that young girls like Nicole and so many other student athletes can live in their full dignity.” said Tyler Whittenberg, the Chief Counsel for Justice System Reform with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which sponsors the Youth Justice Project.

The Youth Justice Project is among those pushing for change. The group has compiled a list of demands that includes an apology to the team and coach from two coaches at Jordan High School, two umpires officiating the softball game and the N.C. High School Athletic Association Supervisor of Official Mark Drelbelbis.

The demands also say DPS and the N.C. High School Athletic Association must pass policies that ensure that hair discrimination will not happen again to another Black girl, whether on the softball field or within the classroom.

“I think that, as we walk towards equity, we must consider moments like this,” added Whittenberg.

“I want everybody else to know that you need to speak up when you’re being bullied, discriminated, any of it, because that happens to a lot of people, and people never want to talk about it, said Pyles.

“Be strong in your own shoes, and stand for what’s right,” she added.

DPS officials also said it’s encouraging the N.C. High School Athletic Association and the National Federation of State High School Associations to review their policies. The district says that, on the surface, they seem fair but are “culturally biased.”

WRAL News followed up with the organization that creates the rules to find out more about how long these rules have been in place and if any changes are anticipated. Advocates are calling for change. Here is the follow-up to this story.

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