CHICAGO (CN) - Requiring players on a boys' basketball team to wear short hair constitutes sex discrimination because there is no comparable policy for female athletes, the 7th Circuit ruled.
The Monday decision involves an unwritten hair-length policy created by the head varsity basketball coach at Greensburg High School in Greensburg, Ind.
While a school or employer may set different grooming standards for men and women based on community norms, the policy at issue here "prohibits far more than an Age-of-Aquarius, Tiny-Tim, hair-crawling-past-the-shoulders sort of hair style - it compels all male basketball players to wear genuinely short hair," the 27-page opinion states. "In 2014, it is not obvious that any and all hair worn over the ears, collar, or eyebrows would be out of the mainstream among males in the Greensburg community at large, among the student body, or among school athletes. (Even one or two men on this court might find themselves in trouble with Coach Meyer for hair over the ears.) (Parentheses in original.)
Coach Stacy Meyer in Greensburg had adopted the rule in imitation of one employed by John Wooden, whom the Associated Press dubbed "one of the most revered coaches ever" upon his death in 2010.
Meyer said it promotes team unity and projects a "clean-cut" image to have the boys on school basketball and baseball teams keep their hair cut above their ears, eyebrows and collars. The boys' track and football teams do not share the same policy, nor do any of the girls' athletic teams.
A.H. said he cut his hair to play for his school's basketball team in seventh grade, but "didn't feel like himself" with a short haircut and refused to cut his hair the next year.
His parents, Patrick and Melissa Hayden, brought suit that year, 2010, on his behalf, challenging the hair-length policy as unconstitutional sex discrimination and a violation of the due process clause.
Greensburg's principal nevertheless sustained the policy and removed A.H. from the team. A.H. moved in with his maternal grandparents in Ossian, Ind., where a local team puts no such hairstyle requirements on players. The ruling notes A.H. is now 17 and in his junior year of high school.
A federal judge ruled for the school, finding that the right to wear one's hair a certain length is not a constitutionally protected fundamental right and that the policy was not discriminatory.
Finding otherwise on the sex-discrimination claim, a divided three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit ruled for the Haydens.
"The hair-length policy applies only to male athletes, and there is no facially apparent reason why that should be so," Judge Ilana Rovner wrote for the majority. "Girls playing interscholastic basketball have the same need as boys do to keep their hair out of their eyes, to subordinate individuality to team unity, and to project a positive image. Why, then, must only members of the boys team wear their hair short? Given the obvious disparity, the policy itself gives rise to an inference of discrimination."
The school district failed to prevent any evidence that it places comparable, if not identical, grooming demands on female athletes that would justify the facially discriminatory rule, the court found.
"If the goal for all interscholastic athletes is a neat, clean-cut appearance, which is one of the reasons that Coach Meyer gave for the hair-length policy, are girls required to maintain their hair to particular standards?" Rovner asked.
Like girls, boys with longer hair do indeed have ways to keep their hair out of their eyes while playing basketball, the majority noted.
"In fact, male athletes use head and hair bands to do this very thing, as anyone who has watched professional basketball or football games recently can confirm," Rovner wrote.
Since Greensburg's stated goals of achieving team unity and a "clean-cut" image are furthermore not unique to the basketball team, the majority also questioned why the school did not impose the policy on all the boys' athletic teams.
"The policy imposes a burden on only male athletes," Rovner wrote. "There has been no showing that it does so pursuant to grooming standards for both male and female athletes that, although not identical, are comparable. Finally, no rational, let alone exceedingly persuasive, justification has been articulated for restricting the hair length of male athletes alone."
Writing in dissent, Judge Daniel Manion deemed the grooming requirements for boys and girls are comparable, and said that "requiring men, but not women, to keep their hair at a certain length has never been held to be unequally burdensome."