Growing up in Texas, he says he and his brothers were often denied the right to play school and college sports because of their turbans, a religious head covering worn by men of the Sikh religion.
The law requires the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, governing bodies of public institutions of higher education, county education boards and community college trustee boards to allow student athletes to modify athletic, or team uniforms, to conform to their religious or cultural requirements, or preferences for modesty.
Under the law, modifications to athletic or team uniforms can include head coverings, undershirts or leggings worn for religious reasons.
Any uniform modifications must not interfere with the student athlete’s movement or pose safety hazards to themselves or others. The Bill also stipulates that uniform modifications must not “cover any part of the face, unless required for the safety of the wearer.”
Forced to choose between faith or sport
“I think that’s what I really believe in sports. You’re supposed to bring people together, not divide them.”
Singh held fast to this belief during his own days as a student athlete, where he and his brothers petitioned various sports governing bodies to allow them to play in religious attire, trailblazing a path to greater inclusion.
To play high school soccer while wearing his turban, Singh says he petitioned the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) and was granted a letter to be carried from game to game that stated he could maintain religious attire while playing.
“While that was helpful for me personally, it was essentially an exception to a discriminatory rule. But now, we’re at a place where we should just be changing the rule that’s discriminatory,” Singh says.
“We shouldn’t put the onus on individuals, and especially on kids, to have to get permission to play and that’s a really important element of this Maryland rule.”
In 2017, the Maryland student was excluded from her basketball team’s first regional final appearance because of her hijab, for which, she said, no one had previously invoked a rule saying she needed a state-signed waiver.
The other high school sports in which athletes no longer need prior approval to wear religious headwear are volleyball, basketball, soccer, field hockey, spirit and softball, according to the NFHS release.
In swimming and diving, competitors will be able to wear suits that provide full body coverage for religious reasons without obtaining prior authorization from state associations.
Permission to play does not guarantee acceptance
Despite this, Singh says there is much more progress to be made around the world.
“It’s great that Maryland is making the move on this law. That’s huge,” he tells CNN. “But I think it should be across the board in every state in the US. I think it should be true in every country. I think it should be true with every sports governing body.”
And for players wearing religious garments, permission to play is not the only obstacle to acceptance.
Singh recounts the backlash his younger brother Darsh Preet Singh received after making history as the first turbaned Sikh American to play top-tier college basketball, governed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
The issue is not isolated to the US. The Singh brothers’ stories highlight the racism and xenophobia that fan the flames of ongoing debates around the world concerning religious attire in sports.
Singh says that such conflict can only be addressed by having the “collective humanity” to sincerely acknowledge that just because legal bans on religious garments exist, does not mean that such rules are just or fair.
“I think people need to get back to the table and say, ‘Hey, these rules weren’t necessarily created for the society we live in today or taking into account global diversity,'” he said.
“This is an issue of equality and inclusion and there’s so much more for us to work on.”