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‘Embarrassed’: Black Student-Athlete Forced to Cut Braids or Leave a North Carolina High School Softball Game, Video Captures Opposing White Coach Initiating Request

A Black high school athlete in North Carolina said she was left “embarrassed” after she was asked to remove the beads from the ends of her hair or leave her softball game, local outlets began reporting this week. 

The incident occurred on April 19 at Hillside High School in Durham, North Carolina, during a game against Jordan High School. Sophomore Nicole Pyles said that during the game the umpires approached her Hillside High coach asking about her hair beads. Pyles, seemingly finding no issue, said she would just “tuck them and put them away,” she told local station WRAL this week. The student-athlete noted that her hair was styled in knotless braids with beads at the end — a style she said she had worn several times before at games. She also revealed her hair has been natural her whole life.

Nicole Pyles (Video screenshot)

Pyles said that it wasn’t until she was coming up to bat in the second inning when concerns over her hair were brought up again. She said that she was told “that they couldn’t see my number, but now it’s a safety issue or a violation, whatever they want to call it.” Shortly afterward, she was told to remove the beads or forfeit the game. Pyles decided to comply, telling the news station, “it wasn’t a real choice.”

She continued, “Why would I leave my team out to dry because of some beads? … I felt like I had to cut these beads out and support my team.” Pyles said her teammate and friends helped her remove the beads by cutting the ends off where the hair decorations were once placed. The high schooler said she not only felt “embarrassed” and “disrespected,” but “distraught at that point.”

The Raleigh News & Observer newspaper reported this week that Durham Public Schools and the North Carolina High School Athletic Association have reached a determination that the umpires’ decision to compel Pyles to remove the beads was not undertaken at the behest of coaches from the opposing Jordan High team. However, video evidence from the game would suggest otherwise.

The newspaper described a Facebook Live video depicting the events that led to the incident in the middle of the second inning:

The umpires approached Nicole Pyles after Jordan completed its at-bat in the top of the second inning of the game at Hillside.

A Facebook live video of the game shows Jordan’s first-base coach, who is white, walk to the mound to speak to the base umpire, who is also white.

That umpire then walked toward the Hillside dugout, which is partially out of the stationary camera’s view. The home plate umpire, who is Black, had previously walked toward the dugout once play stopped.

Due to bat first for Hillside when play resumed, Pyles was taking warm-up swings in the on-deck circle. Though the view of Pyles’ conversation with the umpires is not fully visible on the video, Pyles told the N&O Wednesday the home plate umpire spoke to her with the base umpire standing behind her.

That’s when she said knew she had to cut her hair to keep playing. A few seconds later, a female voice is heard yelling on the video, “Does anyone have scissors?”

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations’ (NFHS) Rule 3-2-5, which covers uniforms and player equipment for students participating in softball, states, “Headwear (caps, visors, headbands, ribbons, etc.) may be mixed. If worn, they must be white, black, beige, or school colors (the colors are not required to be the same for team members).” It continued, “The logo may be any color. Flat items, no longer than 2 inches, used to control the hair, such as bobby pins, barrettes, and hair clips, are permitted. Plastic visors, bandannas, and hair-beads are prohibited.”

North Carolina High School Athletic Association Commissioner Que Tucker released a statement explaining that the NCHSAA was made aware of the incident. Tucker cited the 3-2-5 rule but “empathize with the student athlete and her experience,” calling the occurrence “unfortunate.”

The statement concluded, “The NCHSAA expectation is that coaches will know the playing rules and ensure that their players are also aware of them prior to participating in any athletic contest.”

The NCHSAA seems to have been far more forthcoming with the media this week than with the teenager’s father, Julius Pyles, when he reached out to the organization about the incident. Julius Pyles told the News & Observer this week that when he contacted Durham Public Schools the day after the incident he got a call from Hillside High athletics director Ovester Grays Jr. telling him to contact NCHSAA supervisor of officials Mark Dreibelbis. The father wrote a letter to Dreibelbis, and he described the outcome of that process to the newspaper.

“In turn, whatever investigation he did he did not respond back to me but via email to contact the athletic director at Hillside,” he said. “My thing was I sent the letter to you. You should have addressed me. I shouldn’t have to go ask someone else. That makes me feel like he didn’t really care much for what I had to say.”

Nicole Pyles believes the rules target Black students, and other people of color are more prone to wearing styles similar to hers, a statement Durham Public Schools — which does not ban hair beads — also supports. This year, the city adopted its own version of the CROWN Act, banning schools and employers from discriminating based on hair. 

Pyles told reporters this week that she’s speaking out because “I want everybody else to know that you need to speak up when you’re being bullied, discriminated, any of it, because that happens to a lot of people, and people never want to talk about it.” She added, “Be strong in your own shoes, and stand for what’s right.”

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