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Officials and Rules: The Washington, D.C. Uniform Incident

The fact that Juashuanna, now a senior in high school, has been permitted to wear the body suit in dozens of cross country and track races during her high school career is proof that the rule has been enforced sporadically, if at all. Since she had worn the uniform so many times, most notably at the very same meet last year, she had every reason to expect that it would not be a problem. In fact, days after she was disqualified, she raced in the very same bodysuit at another meet in the area.

The event became a national story because of the religious discrimination overtones surrounding the incident. The unasked question of whether the decision was made to enforce the rule due to some anti-Muslim bias drove the media interest in this story. It mushroomed in to a story about religious freedom. The attention forced the NFHS to issue a statement explaining their version of the story: a version that stated that Miss Kelly elected not to compete by refusing the options that they gave her to come into compliance. These included turning the body suit inside out (I'm unclear as to how this would have helped since I imagine it would still be multi-colored instead of one), or wearing a plain, white, long-sleeved T-shirt over the body suit but under her racing singlet. Understandably, she did not have a shirt with her as she anticipated no problem with her suit. She was subsequently disqualified for her inability to cover up the offending bodysuit because it had three different colors on it instead of the mandated single color. A third option should have been to allow her to run with the understanding that the rule would henceforth be applicable at that meet. If other coaches chose to protest her inclusion, the meet director may have been forced to disqualify her after the event, but at least he would have given her opportunity to race.

Later in the week she successfully competed in another local meet in which the meet director interpreted the rules differently. The Washington Post reported no incidents in connection with her running in the bodysuit i.e. no protests by other coaches or sanctions against the meet. Apparently meet directors have some freedom about how they enforce the rules, which begs the question of why the other meet director was so inflexible.

The rule was written to help officials distinguish athletes from each other. In this situation in which Miss Kelly was the only one in the entire meet wearing a head to ankle body suit, I hardly think that it would have been difficult to pick her out from her competitors. The suit offered her no competitive advantage; in fact it would probably have been a disadvantage, so protecting other athletes was not a factor. The decision to disqualify her helped no one, but did hurt her. Meet officials should take action with the same mandate that doctors use: First, do no harm.