A high school student in Durham, North Carolina, is speaking out after she had to cut her hair in the middle of a softball game to continue playing.
Nicole Pyles, who is Black, said that she was wearing her hair in braids with beads on the ends, a style that she had worn for several games before her softball team's final home game of the season on April 19. The sophomore at Hillside High School told TODAY that her team was winning at the beginning of the second inning when the umpire told her coach that her hairstyle made it impossible to see the number on the back of her jersey. Nicole said that in an effort to rectify the situation, she tucked her hair inside the collar of her shirt, but another complaint was made in the bottom of the second inning.
"I said something to the ump; I asked him ... 'You've seen me play before, so why is it an issue?' And he said, 'It's a rule, so there's not much I can do about it right now,'" Pyles, 16, told TODAY by phone.
Rather than leave the game or stop playing, Pyles removed the beads from her hair.
"I was upset, but I went back to the dugout. And so my team, they were confused and upset as well, but they cut some of the beads, and other ones were snatching beads out of my hair so I was able to play because I wasn’t going to let beads hold me back from playing a softball game," she said.
Pyles, who also spoke to NBC affiliate WRAL, said that in previous games, no one had mentioned the beads or told her she couldn't wear them; she also plays volleyball for her school and never received a complaint there.
In a statement to TODAY, the North Carolina High School Athletic Association said that they were following a regulation from the National Federation of State High School Associations, which provides uniform playing rules nationwide.
"As a member of NFHS, the NCHSAA follows all NFHS playing rules and regulations, including Softball rule 3-2-5 which states that 'Plastic visors, bandanas and hair-beads are prohibited,'" said Commissioner Que Tucker in the statement. "This is not a new rule and when the violation was noticed by an umpire, the proper determination of illegal equipment was verified supported by the NFHS rule."
Pyles said she felt that the complaint was made because her team was winning at the time.
"In my head at the time was, 'Why me, why do I have to take my beads out just because the other team is losing? Why can't we just play a normal softball game?'" she said. "I felt humiliated, just, why?"
Her father, Julius Pyles, told TODAY by phone that he was "infuriated" by the situation when his daughter came home from the game and told him what had happened.
"I understand if there's a rule, that rule should have been enforced from day one, not at the end of the season," Julian Pyles said. "To have someone literally pull stuff out of your hair and cut your hair, and then you've got to go out and be humiliated, that's where I draw the line."
Julian Pyles said that he felt the actions were "discriminatory," noting that Nicole's softball team was predominantly Black and the other team predominantly white.
"I'm still upset; I'm going to continue to talk about it because this is about not only my child but these young ladies and gentleman, that now you have caused a chilling effect to these young ladies who may now think, 'If I continue to play sports, am I going to be treated differently?'" he said.
The Southern Coalition for Social Justice is hoping that the situation leads to an expansion of the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act, an ordinance passed in Durham in January 2021 that bans workplace hair discrimination. The coalition said in a statement that they are hoping that the ordinance will be expanded to include hair discrimination in educational settings.
"Being singled out in this manner for a hairstyle she had worn in a number of previous games was embarrassing and demoralizing," said the coalition. "We are proud to be working with Nicole and her family to raise awareness of this incident and the important issue of racial bias in school and athletic dress codes."
Julian Pyles said that he has asked for an apology from Nicole's school, the school of the opposing team Jordan High School, and the NCHSAA; so far, he said he has received none of those.
"We empathize with the student athlete and her experience," said the NCHSAA's Tucker. "It is truly unfortunate, as we believe this situation should never have occurred. 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."
Durham Public Schools, the district that includes both Nicole's team and the opposing team, said in a statement on Wednesday that they are "actively investigating the circumstances" that led to the incident.
"Durham Public Schools recognizes that the National Federation of State High School Associations has a specific rule (rule 3-2-5) against hair-beads, however, DPS believes this rule is culturally biased," said the district.