14-year-old Nashville athlete sparks national change for religious headwear

Middle TN

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — What started off as a disappointment for 14-year-old Najah Aqeel quickly became a heartfelt mission.

“I feel as though everybody should be able to speak their mind and stand up for what they believe in and follow your dreams and your hopes,” said Najah Aqeel, a ninth-grader at Valor College Prep.

Back in September, the 14-year-old was disqualified from playing in a volleyball match with her teammates at Valor. Aqeel, a Muslim student-athlete, needed permission from state sports officials to wear her hijab while playing.

“I went through a lot of different emotions,” said Aliya Aqeel, Najah’s mom. “I was saddened for her because she was crying and upset, but at the same time as Mom, I’m angry because I felt like in this day and age we’re still going through the same thing that people have been going through since I was a young child.”

Aqeel was eventually allowed to play, but the incident sparked a new mission for her – to change the uniform rules so religious headwear would be allowed for every high school athlete.

“I’m really excited and also overwhelmed with joy,” said Najah.

Thursday, the National Federation of State High School Associations announced new rules that stated volleyball players will no longer need association approval to wear religious headwear during competition.

“Definitely overdue,” said Cameron Hill, Athletic Director for Valor College Prep. “It was antiquated and should have been addressed a long time ago. I hate that it had to be a freshman student to kinda break this mold, but I think Najah literally is the perfect example of somebody that can do it with poise and class.”

For Najah, the rule change is a bit of an answered prayer.

“Every day I’ve been praying the rule is changed,” Najah said. “Everyday I’ve been praying.”

NFHS has already proposed similar changes for all sports, but each rules committee will have to consider and vote on their own amendments.

In a statement to News 2, a spokesperson for the organization wrote:

“The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) includes numerous sport committees; each assigned to implement the rules writing and revision process. The committees meet at various times of the year as sports are played during different seasons. Once rules are published, member state associations have the option of following NFHS rules or making modifications that they choose. The NFHS used to support state associations as they implemented a “prior approval” process regarding religious headwear. The change at the NFHS level, approved by the NFHS Board of Directors, now states that religious headwear is permissible. Each sport committee will have the opportunity to examine the current rules code for their particular sport regarding religious headwear. It is our hope that each sport rules committee will embrace this change (assuming there is no physical risk to the wearer or other competitors) and incorporate this change into their rules codes.”

– Karissa Niehoff

The Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association has already made amendments to the uniform code to allow religious headwear for all athletes across all sports in the state.

“We are very pleased that the NFHS has joined TSSAA in amending the religious headwear rule in volleyball,” said Bernard Childress, Executive Director of the TSSAA. “It is a great day anytime something is done that allows student-athletes to participate and feel comfortable. Their best interest is first and foremost.”

Najah and her family can only hope there is more change on the horizon for high school sports.

“This is the kind of thing that you want to separate religion from sports, but we should be able to incorporate our beliefs and our values into everything that we do. It should be just an extension of our lives,” said Ali Aqeel, Najah’s dad.

For now, there’s no timeline on when changes will be considered for other sports.

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