Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Between Soccer, Basketball and Pistachios

So what do Israel and Iran have in common? Yes, they are in approximately the same region; they may or may not have or be developing nuclear weapons; and we both love our pistachios, which in Israel "officially" come from Turkey…but likely come from, well, we all know where…and I don't care what the California pistachio lobby says, but there is simply no comparison between our "Turkish" pistachios and the smaller, less tastier CA variety.

But in addition to our favorite nuts (and we both have plenty, pistachio and otherwise), Israelis and Iranians now have something else in common, because in both countries women are being banned from playing in international competitions for wanting to wear uniforms that while conforming to their religious beliefs, conflict with rules governing international sports competitions.

With regards to the Iranians, its women's international soccer team forfeited earlier this week an Olympic qualifying game at a tournament against the Jordanian national team for taking the field in what were termed as illegal full-bodied tracksuits and "hijabs" (head coverings), effectively eliminating them from the competition and a chance to play in London in 2012.

FIFA, the international body that governs soccer and which is in the midst (as it often is) of reeling from claims and counter-claims of corruption following the selection of Russia and Qatar (!) to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cup competitions, is in a more problematic situation. Their claim to disallowing the Iranians to take the pitch is based on a FIFA rule that states that "players and officials shall not display political, religious, commercial or personal messages or slogans in any language or form on their playing or team kits". The Iranians, they say, were also informed that since 2007 FIFA believes that wearing a hijab (which is in essence, a tight headscarf) "could cause choking injuries".

The problem with all of this is that the Iranians played preliminary rounds in these uniforms without a comment from FIFA, and the idea that a hijab could cause a "choking" injury is of course, ridiculous. And, by the way, Iranian women do just fine in these "tracksuit/hijab" uniforms in international karate and volleyball competitions (though Iranian women do not participate in international swimming or gymnastics competitions).

The Israeli side of this issue is more complicated. Naama Shafir, the sophomore point guard from the University of Toledo who led her team to the WNIT championship with 40 points in the final, has now joined the Israel national team in advance of the European women's basketball championship that begins in Poland this coming weekend.

Shafir, an Orthodox Jew from the religious community of Hoshaya in Israel's Jezreel Valley, plays at Toledo with a t-shirt under her uniform in order to comply with Jewish rules for modesty for women, something which is allowed according to American's NCAA rules, so for Naama this is no problem; however, t-shirts under the uniform are not allowed according to the rules of FIBA, which is the governing body for all international basketball competitions.

In the meantime, the Israel Basketball Federation's (IBF) request that Shafir be allowed to play with a t-shirt under her uniform has been denied (full disclosure: while not an "employee" of FIBA/Europe, I have long been actively involved with the organization: first as a referee, and now as a game commissioner and referee instructor) and in the days since, it has become an "international" incident, including a letter from the Anti-Defamation League's Abe Foxman to the heads of FIBA in Geneva excoriating the decision, calling it "insensitive and discriminatory".

Unlike the FIFA decision regarding the Iranian women, which seems arbitrary at best, the FIBA decision is at least based on the current rulebook and a real philosophy, which demands uniformity in team dress, including of course, no t-shirts under uniforms, same-colored socks and that even the compression sleeves that are so popular among players these days be the same dominant color as the uniform shirt. The real problem is that while getting more and more the same, there are still some significant differences in rules in the way basketball is played in the United States (NBA, NCAA and high school: all different) and the way basketball is played throughout the rest of the world.

One would think that on one hand, the soccer honchos at FIFA would look for a way to enable women from particularly closed societies such as Iran to play in international tournaments where their countrymen could be exposed to other, including Western, societies; and one would also hope that FIBA and the IBF will find a way to enable Naama Shafir to do what she loves most. 

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