A case for the Quebec soccer turban ban

Paul Wells asked for a good argument from a supporter of the ban. Here’s what he found.

(I thought the debate over the Quebec Soccer Federation’s ban on turbans in league play was lacking some debate. So I put out an open call on Twitter for anyone who agrees with the ban to tell me why. The only person who came forward with anything longer than a tweet (those were generally variations on “It’s FIFA rules, what’s your problem”) was Simon Delorme, a master’s student at Université de Montréal. We asked the Quebec Soccer Federation directly; their answer was “absolutely not.” Here’s a translation of Delorme’s blog post. It took some guts for him to make this argument in Maclean’s; I hope the comment-board debate will be respectful of different opinions. I suspect this isn’t the last word on this debate. I’ll have some thoughts of my own in the morning. – PW)

The current debate in Quebec over turbans on soccer fields is, as it is often the case, misguided. It was immediately characterized as yet another case of religious accommodation, either seen as legitimate or illegitimate, depending on what side of the fence one stands. And again, both sides instantly started to shout at each other, with accusations of either intolerance or injustice flying all over the place. We are apparently witnessing yet another example of either the tyranny of the majority or the tyranny of the minority, and no middle ground seems within reach.

To break the stalemate, it’s imperative to reframe this debate in a more manageable and more palatable fashion. In doing so, we realize the Quebec Soccer Federation did the right thing — for the wrong reason. Everyone will easily admit the safety risks caused by turbans on soccer fields are, if anything, negligible. At the very least, we do not know of any case or data saying otherwise. And anyone playing any sport knows very well they are at risk of injury, at any given moment, when they are on the field. Even when all precautions are taken. If anyone wants to create a “zero-risk” environment in sports, they would better watch soccer on TV than play it. And be careful with the pretzels.

The question here isn’t security. It’s universality. To play a sport in an official manner, under the auspices of any governing body (as opposed to doing it with your buddies in the back alley), also means abiding by the rules, including the regulations about the uniform. When it comes to soccer, this means the shoes have to respect some criteria. Players must wear shorts and a jersey with sleeves, matching the team’s colours. Jewelry is forbidden. Can one wear flip-flops, tennis shoes or cowboy boots? No. Can one wear a tank top, jeans, or play shirts and skins? No. Can one wear a turban, a baseball cap or ski goggles? No. Are these rules, common to all soccer federations in the world through FIFA, there to put constraints on the players’ freedoms of religion or expression? No. They are there to ensure everyone’s safety, sure, but also to ensure the uniformity and universality of the game, and also the sense of belonging to one’s team. This is important.

Important because, for 90 minutes or so, everyone is dressed the same. Everyone is part of the team. Everyone is working together. Black, white or any other skin color. Francophone, Anglophone or allophone. Sikh, Muslim or atheist. Boy or girl (in coed leagues). Rich or poor. These things do not matter anymore. Everyone is there to play. To win, or at least to participate and have fun. Is it so unreasonable to uphold the values of the sport first, for an hour and a half? And yes, just as there is such a thing as religious values, there is also such a thing as sports values. Values like equality, effort, commitment, fairness, camaraderie, fun and health. And universality. Aren’t these great values to convey to our children, once in a while, while playing at the park? Aren’t these values worth protecting and expressing, too?

This universality guarantees that, whether in Marseilles or Bamako, Mumbai or Brossard, anyone can join in, anyone can play, precisely because the very same rules apply to everyone in the world. Sport, practiced in this manner, is an extremely powerful tool we can use to cut through differences and divisions. The Olympic Games are another example. Ancient or modern, the Games promote peace, tolerance and understanding through the universality of sports. This is a very valuable principle, certainly as valuable as the protection of an individual’s right to express their religious beliefs. And it is without a doubt the rationale behind FIFA’s rules and regulations, the same rules and regulations enforced by the Quebec Soccer Federation, in the same spirit of universality. There is also something to be said about respect for the game, the uniform and one’s teammates. Striking the right balance between rights and responsibilities is another valuable lesson to be learned here.

Religious accommodations, when they are deemed reasonable within the frame of a democratic and secular state, have their place in a liberal society like ours, in accordance with the rule of law. It should also be the case for sports accommodations. Doing so 90 minutes at a time, as far as I am concerned, passes the litmus test for a reasonable accommodation. And everyone wins.

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