Sport Governance and Headscarves

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Sport governance refers to the exercise of authority by sport organizations. This can occur at the local, state, national, or international levels. And, relevant to this discussion, sport governance is frequently related to diversity and opportunity.

As an illustrative example, Michelle Cox and her colleagues at Auckland University of Technology, conducted a study to examine FIFA’s decision to ban headscarves among soccer players. For those less familiar with soccer, FIFA is the international governing body for the sport.

The study revolved around Law 4 of Football, which states “a player must not use any equipment or wear anything that is dangerous to himself or another player.” The law continues “The basic compulsory equipment must not contain any political, religious or personal statements.”  The law was especially relevant to Muslim women and the headscarf many wear as a part of their religious observance. FIFA leaders interpreted the law to mean that women could not wear headscarves while playing soccer. When players did wear the headscarves and refused to remove them, the team had to forfeit the match.

At the time of the study, Cox worked for FIFA, and the authors offer an overview of her resistance to the law and the way she sought to alter leaders’ interpretation of it. They note that FIFA leaders developed pre-conceived notions of headscarves and used questionable science to support their positions. People on both sides of the argument tried to build coalitions to sway the issue. In the end, the headscarves were permitted, but people who had opposed the administration along the way, such as Cox, were excluded and ultimately shunned. Cox, for example, has since left the organization.

Cox and colleagues’ study shows the political nature of fighting for inclusive practices, including sport. Their research also demonstrates the political process of sport governance—one that influence diversity and inclusion efforts.