All on the Same Team
Muslim college athletes often find acceptance on campus, but worry about what comes next
Story by Brian Burnsed
Photos by Jamie Schwaberow
Two sets of girls stood on a basketball court and bowed their heads. One group was Christian. The other, Muslim. They had grown accustomed to welcoming remarks from hosts of other faiths. Referees in their Memphis church league typically uttered a few all-encompassing words of prayer before games, beseeching God that the fifth- and sixth-graders emerge from the contest safely, asking him that they play hard and play fair.
The girls on the court didn’t hear words like those that mid-January day. Instead, the referee felt compelled to offer specifics: Jesus died on the cross for our sins, he proclaimed. If you don’t believe that’s the truth, you’re living in sin.
Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, her head wrapped in a hijab, turned her gaze to the Muslim girls on her team as he spoke, but she could not find a trace of sin on their small faces. Instead, she watched their eyes grow wide. She saw confusion contort their expressions. She interjected, asking the referee to keep his thoughts general, noting two groups with similar values but different dogmas had gathered to play a game of basketball, not to reflect on the legitimacy of their faiths.
This is a Baptist church, he retorted. If you don’t like it, then you shouldn’t be here.
Tears creeping down her face, Abdul-Qaadir asked her team to return to the bench. The former University of Memphis basketball standout suggested the game be called off, but the opposing coach begged them to stay, apologizing for the remarks and promising to stop the game if there were any signs of bias or, worse, bigotry. Abdul-Qaadir agreed, but stewed. None of the other 100 or so people in the gym offered a word of comfort or empathy.
Before the game tipped off, Abdul-Qaadir approached her girls on the bench. She did not discuss posting up or boxing out. She told them that the day would not be the last time they would experience the ache they had just felt. She said they would face a world where people felt emboldened to speak down to them — or worse. She implored them to cry rather than curse, though she had yearned to do the latter. “It was a test,” she says. “A true test.”
Abdul-Qaadir’s dispute with the referee occurred in the same city where she once relished answering her teammates’ and classmates’ earnest questions about Islam. But a campus, she has learned, is different than a city. Teammates are different than the public. And to Abdul-Qaadir, 2017 is different than 2013, when she graduated from Memphis before using her final season of eligibility while in graduate school at Indiana State.
The issues haven’t arisen solely due to differences between faiths: The United States is reckoning with its relationship to Islam and how its followers, who make up 1 percent of the U.S. population, are treated. Attacks carried out in the name of Allah by extremists around the world bastardize the religion in the minds of those who don’t understand it, and reactions from American politicians and pundits have blurred the lines between those terrorists and the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. Young adherents to the faith are increasingly anxious about what the future holds.
Facts seem to validate those fears. FBI hate crime data from 2016 has not yet been released, but 257 anti-Muslim hate crimes occurred in 2015, a 67 percent increase from the previous year. In 2015, the 91 anti-Muslim assaults were the most since 93 were recorded in 2001, many coming in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. This year, four American mosques were set ablaze in January and February alone.
“Since day one when we opened our doors in 1994, I don’t think the level of tension and apprehension in the American Muslim community has ever been greater — even after 9/11,” says Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a prominent Muslim civil rights advocacy group. “What we’ve seen in recent years and months, particularly during the presidential election, is the mainstreaming of Islamophobia.”
Though college campuses often serve as bastions of religious tolerance, in recent months posters calling for “A Muslim-free America” have popped up at schools ranging from Texas to Rutgers. Khaled Beydoun, associate professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law and an affiliated faculty member with the University of California, Berkeley, Islamophobia Research & Documentation Project, has seen the polarization in the nation writ large reach campuses — with some there defending Islam and others insisting it breeds hate and terror. Those who may have harbored silent hatred for Muslims seem to be piping up, he says. Admissions personnel at some of the nation’s top universities tell him some Muslim students from overseas decline opportunities to attend, wary the country may not accept them even if the school does.
Abdul-Qaadir lives in the same city where she was a college basketball star, but her father’s text messages now bear warnings about being careful of her surroundings and always checking over her shoulder. Nigeria native Ki-Ke Rafiu, graduate assistant on the Georgetown women’s basketball team and a season removed from a four-year stint as a player, isn’t from a country facing restrictions under the U.S. government’s proposed travel ban that has made headlines in recent months, but she frets about her ability to stay and coach in the United States. Separated by an ocean, her parents express their worries: “Be careful,” they tell her. “Be smart.”
Though some Muslim student-athletes are forced to make sacrifices to ensure their sport meshes with their faith — finding time for daily prayers, securing waivers for head coverings or beards, competing and training while fasting for Ramadan — many have found acceptance in their schools and in their sports.
Does the same hold true in the world that awaits them after the final whistle?
When Abdul-Qaadir took the court for Memphis in 2010, she became the first woman in Division I basketball to wear a hijab during games. (She also wore tights below her uniform to cover her arms and legs.) Her teammates, unfamiliar with Islam, greeted her customs with befuddlement, which soon morphed into curiosity: Why do you pray five times per day? It’s a pillar of Islam and helps strengthen my belief. Why do you have to fast? To demonstrate my surrender to a higher power. Why do you cover your head and limbs? For physical and spiritual protection, and so people respect me for who I am and not what I look like. Some watched her pray. Some joined. Others ensured music and chatter ceased in the locker room when it was time for Abdul-Qaadir to fall to her knees and face Mecca. “Every teammate I’ve had has been open and wanted to know and to really educate themselves,” she says. “It definitely felt like a safe place.”
Abdul-Qaadir is an African-American from Massachusetts, but her experiences in college are echoed by some Muslim athletes hailing from overseas. Rafiu, from Georgetown, also answered a host of questions from teammates. She played with a head covering, which required a waiver from the NCAA, and occasionally spent downtime with her peers, including her welcoming Christian teammates, comparing the tenets of their faiths. Given Georgetown’s Catholic roots, Rafiu learned Bible verses and called attention to similarities between their respective religions’ teachings.
During her junior year, the understanding generated through those conversations led to action. When a Transportation Security Administration agent at Reagan National Airport asked Rafiu to remove her hijab while passing through security, her teammates intervened. They insisted she must keep it on for religious reasons, that her beliefs prohibited her from exposing herself to the masses. The agent relented. “It was one of my proudest moments with my teammates,” Rafiu says.
Beydoun notes camaraderie among teammates that transcends nationality, race or religion is common. “College campuses, generally, are more tolerating, accepting, more progressive spaces than the rest of society,” he says. “You compound that with the idea that sports teams, athletic teams in college, are like intimate families of sorts. There’s going to be a willingness to want to learn about people’s faiths and cultures, and so forth, which is not the case in society at large once you transition out of a college campus.”
While Abdul-Qaadir and Rafiu insist their college experiences were overwhelmingly positive, both faced a handful of slights born of ignorance — or worse — in their college years. Referees, even those Abdul-Qaadir had played in front of numerous times, often questioned why she was wearing something around her head. Coaches had to keep her waiver on hand at every game. Occasionally, Abdul-Qaadir would hear unkind words hurled from the stands at road games. Dealing with vitriol from the crowd is commonplace for any athlete, but mentions of her head covering — sometimes equating it to a bedsheet — felt like an assault on her most intimate beliefs.
Once, a men’s basketball player standing along the sideline shouted for the defender in front of Abdul-Qaadir to “lock that Muslim down.” Her dejection transformed to appreciation when she learned that word of the incident bounced from her coach to the athletics director of the opposing school, and the men’s team found itself doing 6 a.m. workouts throughout the next week.
Rafiu heard similar questions and comments. Rather than get angry, she retorted with information, not malice. “People are just ignorant,” she says. “So, I educate.”
Abdul-Qaadir and Rafiu say securing a waiver from the NCAA that permitted them to play with a hijab was a relatively painless process, but they are now engaged in a tougher fight on the global stage. FIBA, basketball’s international governing body, does not allow head coverings in international play, and both women are involved in the effort to change that rule. Abdul-Qaadir’s commitment to Islam deepened when she learned of the ban because her inability to compete clarified her purpose: She would devote herself to advocating for the religion and other female Muslim athletes. FIBA indicated in January the rule was being reviewed, and the ban could be lifted as early as May.
“We have dealt with this kind of issue periodically over the years,” says Hooper, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “Usually, after a lot of time and effort, we are successful.”
The case of college wrestler Muhamed McBryde is one such success story. When McBryde arrived at Buffalo in 2013, coaches and teammates assumed he would simply shave his beard when the time came to compete in tournaments — NCAA rules prohibit wrestlers from wearing beards for safety reasons. McBryde, though, insisted the beard would stay; his family’s interpretation of Islam demanded it, he told Buffalo coach John Stutzman. (Citing a desire to not publicly discuss his faith, McBryde declined a request to be interviewed for this story.)
Unwilling to shave, McBryde sacrificed most of his freshman season. He stunned Stutzman by enduring grueling training sessions without the reward of competition when all he needed to do to end the uncertainty was put a razor to his cheek. “I didn’t understand at the time,” Stutzman says. “Nobody understood how deep, how strong, his faith was.”
By 2014, McBryde’s sophomore year, with an assist from attorneys at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the school secured a waiver from the NCAA that permitted McBryde to wrestle with a mask. The victory came at a price: The clear plastic covered his entire face save for his eyes and mouth. McBryde struggled to breathe, occasionally panicking or hyperventilating as opponents used the mask to their advantage, tugging on the straps for additional leverage.
The torment McBryde’s mask caused troubled Stutzman, who sought a solution. He eventually stumbled upon a wrap for the head and face that would be less restrictive, and McBryde wore it during his junior year. Early in the season, though, an opposing coach reported the covering as a rules violation, which required a new waiver and more missed tournaments. Still, McBryde insisted the beard would stay.
“I have so much respect for him standing up for what he believed in, because peer pressure tells you to do what?” Stutzman says. “It tells you to shave it and to be like everybody else. Not him. He said, ‘This is who I am. I’m not shaving. I’ll be part of the team, but I’m not changing.’”
When McBryde’s waiver was first announced, local and national outlets alike relayed the story. Stutzman says he never heard teammates or opponents utter derogatory remarks to McBryde, but he and his staff have been keenly aware of sentiments expressed in public forums. Stutzman saw the comments like those posted under an article about McBryde written on TheBlaze, a popular website overseen by former Fox News pundit Glenn Beck. Some commenters lauded the decision, but many more derided McBryde: “My answer move back to your country and wrestle” … “more special dispensation for a muslim (sic) … they will by tiny increments destroy what it (sic) left of our country.” Comments on a blog that shared the story were even darker: “I hope someone bigger than he is manages to grab hold of that flea infested beard and pulls it off his face.”
Now a senior, McBryde hasn’t let anonymous voices online hinder his desire to compete. He is now a team captain, earning the honor in part due to his prowess — he finished his senior season 22-17 — but primarily because of what he sacrificed for the sake of his principles. He finished his career on scholarship, pursuing a graduate degree, and aspires to work in the medical field.
Through McBryde’s steadiness during the waiver process and in their private conversations, Stutzman came to respect Islam and the people who practice it. He is irked when he hears others denounce a faith they do not understand. “I’ve got a 3-year-old son, and I told (McBryde) this: Regardless if you win or lose, if my son ever grew up like you, that type of work ethic, that type of life, that type of commitment, I’d be very happy.”
During his campaign, now-President Donald Trump said, bluntly, “I think Islam hates us.” When asked about the difference between extremists and other Muslims, he insisted, “It’s very hard to separate because you don’t know who’s who.” His administration has since attempted to enact a travel ban relevant to six Muslim-majority countries in an effort, the White House says, to quell terrorism. Words and actions like those, experts say, are detrimental to the 3.3 million Muslims — white, black, Arabic, native or foreign-born — already living in America.
“Policies and rhetoric coming from the top, from the administration — they essentially push private citizens to engage in the kind of hate-mongering and violent attacks that we see on the ground,” Beydoun says.
Foreign Muslim students already in the U.S. are beginning to feel new anxieties, even if they have had positive experiences to date. Farida Osman, a swimmer at California who represented Egypt during the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, insists she has not faced any bigotry during her four years in the United States, but she is disturbed by burgeoning anti-Islamic rhetoric. She and her parents, who live in Egypt, discuss their concerns, but try to remain optimistic. She says her older brother, a California graduate, has grown accustomed to enduring invasive additional security procedures at airports because of his name and his appearance. She does not speak of his experiences with outrage, only resignation. “He got used to it,” she says. “He just shakes it off.”
Beydoun says fears manifest in the subtle changes young Muslim-Americans make to avoid standing out. More women are choosing not to wear headscarves, he says. Young men are shaving their beards or avoiding traditional garb when they go to a mosque. Men named Muhammad might go by Mo or Michael. “These things have happened for a long time,” he says. “But you’re seeing it happening at a higher rate now.”
How can those fears be quelled? In part, by leaders willing to give voice to the 1.6 billion Muslims who practice the religion peacefully. Athletes, by nature of their stature on campus and in public life, have one of the largest platforms from which to educate: A message coming from someone wearing a hijab and a jersey is likely to resonate more than one coming from someone with a hijab alone, Beydoun says, because sport is essential to American culture.
Olympians like former Duke fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad have helped call attention to the faith. Muhammad is the first U.S. athlete to compete in the Olympics while wearing a hijab, and she took home a team bronze medal in 2016. But Muhammad, American-born and a burgeoning icon, was detained for several hours at an airport in December. People have followed her after practice and tried to report her to the police. She has said publicly she feels unsafe in the United States. Speaking out isn’t easy, and expecting all athletes to do so isn’t realistic. “I’ve met a lot of Muslim athletes at the college level who just aren’t political people,” Beydoun says. “But these guys can be really influential ambassadors.”
Abdul-Qaadir strives to be such an ambassador. She questioned her faith when she was first asked to wear a hijab as a teenager and again when her dreams of a professional basketball career overseas were snuffed out by FIBA’s ban. But those questions yielded a clear answer — a deeper commitment to her beliefs and a desire to help young girls who are walking the same path.
So she gives speeches at conventions, has taken part in a documentary about her life as a Muslim basketball player and was twice a guest of President Barack Obama at White House events focused on Islam. She hopes to change minds by being a living example of someone who is a good basketball player, a devoted coach and a Muslim. She hopes people who see her deeds and hear her words realize praying to Allah five times a day does not beget hatred or terror, just as she doesn’t assume people who kneel before Jesus are members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Abdul-Qaadir’s girls played, and won, after the referee admonished them before that January basketball game. After the final buzzer, she saw a handful of parents from the other team approach him and thank him for speaking truth to the little girls who pray to Allah and for standing up to the woman — slight frame, head covered — who defended them.
Still shaken, Abdul-Qaadir remains hopeful the rest of the country, including parents and referees around Memphis in the church gyms she will continue frequenting, see her and the young girls she coaches as a basketball team, not symbols of their deepest fears: “We’re people, you know?”