Nine-year-old American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) soccer player Aubrey Zvovushe-Ramos was all set to compete alongside her Sapphires teammates in Monroe, Conn., last weekend. She has been playing with AYSO for the past six years without any problems. But this time, Zvovushe-Ramos was unexpectedly pulled from the lineup by the referee at the beginning of the game, according to ThinkProgress.
The reason? Her hairstyle — the same hairstyle she’s been sporting the entire time she’s played with AYSO: braids that cascade over the right side of her face and end in plastic beads. The referee told the little girl that unless she removed the beads from her braids, she would have to sit out the game. The beads, he explained, violated AYSO rules, which prohibit players from wearing jewelry and metal and plastic hair clips on the field but do not specifically mention beads.
Her mother, Amy Zvovushe-Ramos, was appalled. “We go to the salon for an hour and a half — it’s not as simple as ‘pull the beads out,'” she told ThinkProgress, adding that she felt her daughter had been “singled out” as the only African-American on the team. The beads, Amy explained, were not just a fashion statement. “Her #AfricanAmerican hair is a different texture and is treated differently than #Caucasian hair. We found a child-friendly style that allows her to play sports and still be a little girl,” the mom wrote in a post to Instagram, accompanying an image of her standing beside her daughter on the field.
Regardless, Amy offered to secure Aubrey’s braids with a hair tie “so they wouldn’t flap around as much,” she told ThinkProgress. The referee wouldn’t accept the makeshift solution, and Aubrey was left to sit on the bench throughout the game. Whether or not the tween was embarrassed by the move is not clear, because outwardly, she handled the situation with grace and sportsmanship, cheering on her teammates from the sidelines, according to the publication. “My daughter is the real #MVP,” Amy noted in her Instagram post.
The referee’s request is reminiscent of another incident, this past August, in which a concierge at the St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan was pulled aside by her manager for having “locs,” which violated the company’s dress code. The manager asked the employee if she could “unlock.” Dreadlocks, as the manager may or may not have known, cannot be undone — they can only be cut.
After the game, confused as to how she could have accidentally put their daughter in this position, Amy and her husband combed through the AYSO handbook to see if they had missed anything about “braided hair secured with beads,” according to the mom’s Instagram. They found nothing, so they took their complaint/query to the corporate headquarters of AYSO.
On Tuesday, they received a response and an explanation: Plastic hair beads are considered jewelry and are therefore banned from the soccer field, according to ThinkProgress, which gained firsthand access to the email communications. Even though this is not specified in the handbook, a rep for AYSO claimed, “there was ‘no question’ in the national office that hair beads are considered jewelry.”
Amy may have her matter-of-fact answer, but she’s still holding out for a more human response. “All I wanted was an apology and for them to admit that they handled it incorrectly,” the mom told ThinkProgress. She also feels that this unfortunate incident — which she considers to be public humiliation of her young daughter, according to her Instagram — underlines AYSO’s need for diversity sensitivity training.
The mom gives the referee the benefit of the doubt, she tells ThinkProgress. It’s possible that he didn’t understand the complexities of styling African-American hair and that it’s not possible to remove hair beads on the spot. It’s not that simple.
As ThinkProgress points out, a recent piece in the Washington Post by writer Sharon Van Epps highlights the need for more diversity and racial and ethnic sensitivity in children’s soccer. Van Epps writes, “America’s youth soccer system wasn’t established with racist or elitist intent, but it’s been allowed to evolve in that direction without meaningful efforts at course correction. … Fold in the challenge of competing in an environment where the majority of your teammates, opponents, coaches, and referees come from a different racial, cultural, and/or socioeconomic background, and it’s obvious that persevering in athletics demands extraordinary maturity and strength of character from young girls of color. If gymnast Gabby Douglas was publicly attacked for her hairstyle after winning Olympic gold, what must it feel like to be the only 12-year-old girl in cornrows on a suburban soccer field, adrift in a sea of blond ponytails?”
Or, in Aubrey’s case, a 9-year-old girl in braids and beads.
While the little girl was a sport on the field, the situation has definitely knocked her self-esteem — and thrown her mother for a loop in the process. “It’s rough for [Aubrey]; she’s being strong but it was definitely a difficult weekend,” Amy told ThinkProgress. “On Saturday night she couldn’t sleep. She still wants to play soccer, but I don’t know what to do moving forward.”