Asiya Empowers Athletes

Jackie McDermott, Sports Editor

Hijab-wearing Muslim athletes received some much-needed good news on Monday.

A duo of women entrepreneurs announced that they will release a line of hijabs made of a breathable material that absorbs sweat, empowering some Muslim athletes to play more comfortably.

Fatimah Hussein, a Somali immigrant and founder of a girls’ sports non-profit, and her business partner, Jamie Glover, founded the modest sportswear company Asiya to meet the demand from the ever-growing number of Muslim girls and women participating in athletics.

With this news, the sportswear market promotes a trend of visibility and acceptance of Muslim athletes that has slowly taken hold in the sports world. But that progress is in danger given that the American public seemingly regressed when it comes to religious tolerance by electing Donald Trump, who has promoted xenophobic and anti-Muslim rhetoric. Positive developments such as Asiya’s work should be celebrated, but the sports world must continue to ensure that Muslim athletes are accepted.

Ibtihaj Muhammad brought hijabs in sports to the forefront of global conversation during the Olympics last summer. Muhammad, who competed with the women’s fencing team in Rio, was the first hijab-wearing athlete to compete for Team USA.

Fans, sports broadcasters and corporate sponsors alike embraced Muhammad as a poised, outspoken symbol of diversity in the midst of an election that spouted anti-minority rhetoric.

In the numerous interviews she gave, Muhammad often mused that she loved fencing because it made her feel accepted. The fencing uniform mostly covered her hijab and put the focus on her sporting prowess rather than her religious expression.

“I’ve always loved [that] in my sport once I put my mask on, I’m like everyone else,” Muhammad said in an interview with CNBC. “My uniform doesn’t seem different in any way… I’m just solely known for my kind of athletic ability first and foremost.”

For Muslim athletes like Muhammad, fighting to be recognized for their athletic ability were dealt a blow from President-elect Trump several months ago.

In an effort to combat anti-Muslim rhetoric in the wake of the San Bernardino terrorist attack last December, President Obama stated in a speech, “Muslim Americans are our friends and our neighbors; our co-workers, our sports heroes.”

To which Trump replied via Twitter: “Obama said in his speech that Muslims are our sports heroes. What sport is he talking about, and who? Is Obama profiling?”

Not only has Trump attempted to invalidate Muslim athletes and claim they don’t exist, he also directly tried to silence one of the most prominent Muslim athletes ever, who also happens to be the NBA’s leading all-time scorer: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

After Abdul-Jabbar, now a prominent journalist and author, wrote an essay in The Washington Post criticizing Trump’s attempts to intimidate the press, Trump wrote Abdul-Jabbar a handwritten response asserting that he has “no clue about life.”

Trump apparently has no clue that there are numerous Muslim Americans competing at the professional level who will not just accept his rhetoric. Ryan Harris, an offensive tackle for the Steelers and Notre Dame alumnus who has condemned Trump’s rhetoric, said that up until this election, he always felt comfortable as a Muslim football player.

“People need to know, I have had the best experience being Muslim both at Notre Dame and in NFL,” Harris said in an interview with USA Today. “Every single one of my coaches has respected me, asked me about it. My teammates ask me about it. I have never experienced any xenophobia in the NFL… [But] when you start hearing that kind of rhetoric, and you can never control what some psychopathic extremist is going to do, that’s going to have an effect on all of us.”

Concerns about what an “extremist” can do are especially prevalent given the nature of professional sporting events, which gather tens of thousands of people in close proximity and leave athletes virtually unprotected in an open field. Although players cannot necessarily offer physical protection to their Muslim athletes, they can certainly offer public support.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers set a great example of public support when he condemned anti-Muslim remarks made by a fan last year. Just days after the Paris terrorist attacks, the Green Bay Packers, hosting the Tennessee Titans, had a moment of silence for the victims. During that time of rememberance, a fan shouted, “Muslims suck.”

In the post-game press conference, Rodgers made it clear that those type of remarks have consequences far beyond the football field. Not only are they unacceptable among fans and in the stadium, they have consequences far beyond the sports world.

“It’s that kind of prejudicial ideology,” Rodgers said, “that I think puts us in the position that we’re in today, as a world.”

Although more non-Muslim athletes should follow Rodgers’ example, their statements of support are not enough. As xenophobic ideology spreads and the number of Muslim hate crimes rises, it becomes more important than ever that professional leagues reaffirm their commitment to protecting Muslim athletes.

The NFL, NBA and other organizations should release statements of support for their Muslim players and leaders.

Muslim athletes will continue to educate their teammates and speak out against hate. But the burden cannot fall solely on them. Non-Muslim members of the sports world must make it clear that there is no place for religious intolerance and hate in the game.