The California Interscholastic Federation State office has intervened after a Burbank High School volleyball player was nearly prohibited from participating in her sport due to a referee’s objection to her hairstyle.
On Tuesday, Sept. 7, the Burbank High School volleyball team was playing a match against Glendale High School when an official raised concern over the hair beads of BHS senior and Varsity volleyball player Madison Clevenger, who wears her hair in dreadlocks.
Clevenger had recently encountered the referee at a tournament prior to the game against Glendale, where he addressed her with an objection to her hair. Clevenger didn’t respond to his remarks, and when he again officiated the game on Sept. 7, neither she nor her coach received any direct complaints from the official. Instead, she says, he issued a formal complaint to the CIF without her knowledge, and she was later notified about his attempts to prevent her from playing due to her hair beads. The referee’s complaint upset Clevenger, especially as his formal grievance warranted a more extensive reversal process from school administrators.
“I was angry because I didn’t like the fact that…[the] ref was filing complaints about my hair, [and] doing so in a way that would make it hard to reverse, that would require us to go through the CIF and the school district, and go through my principal and my assistant principal,” Clevenger said. “I thought that was wrong. If it really was that much of an issue he could’ve just gone to my coach and we could’ve dealt with it then, because him putting it in writing just meant we had to reverse it.”
Clevenger’s mother, Yvonne Clevenger, says that she began doing research on the subject and found that the rule was set by the National Federation of State High School Associations. In July of this year, the NFHS similarly faced a situation in which a regulation was changed to permit hairstyles and accessories that reflect cultural or religious backgrounds for softball players. This came after a high school softball player was forced to remove her hair braids and cut some of her off in order to meet the guidelines of this NFHS rule.
“In that instance, they changed the rule. They took that rule out,” Yvonne Clevenger said of the NFHS softball rule change. “Now it says beads are allowed [for softball], and they said that something about it was cultural insensitivity. So they know that it’s wrong. Why does that rule still exist?”
Following this incident, the school reached out to the CIF Southern Section staff and State office personnel to find a resolution. Burbank High School Principal Dr. Thomas Crowther, BHS faculty and members of the Burbank Unified School District remained in support of Clevenger throughout the ordeal. In addition, the BHS Varsity volleyball team had planned to stand in solidarity with Clevenger and forfeit their game on Sept. 10 had she not been permitted to play based on her hair beads.
“I was obviously upset,” Clevenger said. “I’m like, this isn’t fair. And the rest of my team was upset too… and they weren’t going to play [if I wasn’t].”
The CIF responded swiftly to the school’s messages and within one day was able to issue a policy waiver to accommodate the situation. The waiver will allow Clevenger, along with all boys and girls high school volleyball players statewide, to proceed with their participation while wearing hair beads. CIF Associate Executive Director Brian Seymour noted that the CIF State office has previously requested alterations to this NFHS rule, which aided in expediting the process of issuing the waiver.
“We as a state had put in a [rule change] request many years ago to the NFHS,” Seymour said. “This was something that the State of California was ready to make changes to as is, so that’s why this got done so quickly.”
The NFHS volleyball rules currently state that beads are not allowed to be worn in a player’s hair. The CIF, however, may intervene, as in this case, when accommodations are deemed necessary and follow safety guidelines for all players. As the rule falls under NFHS discretion, their committees are currently deliberating whether or not they will make changes to these guidelines.
Following the CIF’s intervention, Crowther expressed his satisfaction in the organization’s actions while acknowledging the necessary evaluations of these regulations by the NFHS.
“At the end of the day there was a process in place for us to work with the CIFSS and the CIF State office on a resolution that supported our student-athletes,” Crowther said. “We were able to communicate, have a dialogue, advocate for our students and work towards a policy waiver that affords them the opportunity to focus on their remaining games and their studies. We are pleased in that regard. At the same time, we were taken back at the rule itself and saddened that a discriminatory rule like this still exists, albeit buried in a National rulebook in the ‘equipment and uniform’ section. We were happy to hear that this rule is scheduled for review and expect that it will be eliminated or modified so that no student-athlete needs the stress of all this again. It isn’t right.”
Aside from being a key contributor to the BHS volleyball program, Clevenger writes for the school newspaper, serves as a student contributor on the Burbank Unified School District’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, and is President of the school’s Black Student Union. After she graduates from BHS, Clevenger plans on moving forward with a writing career focusing on humanities. This experience has confirmed to her the importance of her work in promoting diversity and equity, and making all people feel accepted as they honor their identity through cultural customs.
“I think this policy is exactly one of those examples of our systems that have shown to be racist, but we haven’t been able to work out yet,” Clevenger said. “And I think that it’s important as we’re trying to move forward as a community, especially Burbank or as a society, [to make] sure that everyone feels included and safe that we stomp out… old outdated rules immediately.”
Volleyball Referee Assigner Tom Nassraway was contacted for the article but declined to comment. NFHS staff members did not respond to emails requesting a statement. BHS volleyball coach Patrick Tyler referred us to school administrators when asked for a statement.