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Keith Strudler: The Nike Pro Yarmulke

A long time ago I competed in the Maccabiah Games in Israel, which is commonly or perhaps mockingly referred to as the Jewish Olympics. I say this not to brag – and I doubt anyone takes it that way – but rather for context. There, I raced in the triathlon and the half-marathon. And throw in any joke you’d like about the Maccabiahs doing a half-marathon instead of the full deal. If nothing else, it’s hard to go sightseeing on tired legs.

I have one vivid memory of the half-marathon. Pretty much the whole race, and especially at the end, I was chasing an Israeli athlete who happened to be wearing a yarmulke. I suppose it’s not all that unusual to see someone wearing a yarmulke in Israel, but perhaps still uncommon at the end of quick 13 mile foot race. In a competitive space where most athletes wear a little as possible to stay fleet of foot, this guy had on something that most all of us remember struggling to keep on our heads during Sunday School. Thus, the introduction of the bobby pin. But I digress.

Of course, Orthodox Jews aren’t the only ones who might wear a head-cover during athletic competition. And Nike has seized upon that reality, just recently introducing its Nike Pro Hijab. This is, of course, the traditional head-covering worn by some Muslim women as a sign of modesty and religious faith. Unlike the yarmulke, the hijab has been highly politicized, particularly in several non-Muslim majority nations, like ours. In the US, we’ve seen several criminal cases of women targeted because of their hijabs. In other countries, it’s been a point of contentious legislation and policy. And certainly amongst the Muslim community, there are differing perspectives about the nature of this headgear in an allegedly progressive society. So, perhaps more so that the yarmulke, which to be honest isn’t seen that much outside of Bar Mitvahs and Brooklyn, the hijab carries some context.

And now, it also has an athletic sponsor. Just this week, Nike has official released its Swoosh branded sports hijab, allowing Muslim female athletes who chose to wear headgear to wear one that’s softer, lighter, and long enough to stay tucked in. The Nike Pro Hijab is a welcomed addition for athletes who may have competed with less-breathable, less-flexible, and altogether less-performance oriented hijabs traditionally used in competition. That is, for those sports that allow hijabs in competition, since some agencies actually still ban them – like FIBA, the international federation for basketball, which doesn’t allow objects that could cause injury to other players. Which apparently this can. There have been cases of American athletes targeted because of their hijabs, and certainly cases of those targeted outside of sports. Particularly in these past Olympics, we’ve seen a handful of prominent athletes with hijabs – most notably American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, the only Muslim woman on the American Rio Olympic team. To be fair and accurate, one reason we haven’t seen more hijabs in international and Olympic sports is because several majority Muslim nations have maintained repressive policies about female participation in sport. Hopefully that will continuously change, like it did last year when Saudi Arabia sent its first women to the Olympics.

What’s interesting here isn’t that hijabs are now more breathable, or lighter, or have a cool logo on the side – which I’m sure basically doubled its retail price. Next thing you know, there’ll be a Jordan version that costs triple. What’s interesting is that in the midst of America strictly limiting entry of Muslims into the US while creating a culture of fear and animus, one of our nation’s most iconic corporations seems to be doing just the opposite. I can’t say for certain what the market is for athletic hijabs, but I will say this. Nike could have gotten along just fine without it. I’m guessing they’ll sell more KD’s – and that’s Kevin Durant’s, for those who don’t have kids with expensive shoe habits – in an hour then they’ll sell hijabs in a year. And I’m being generous. So while I know Nike will literally never turn down an opportunity to make a buck, this wasn’t really an economic play here.

What Nike did was something that it seems like our government cannot – or certainly will not. They built a bridge through the common language of sport, reminding anyone that cares to pay attention that Muslim and non-Muslim athletes share the same space, needs, and consumer habits. Maybe more importantly, Nike validated the experience of millions of young women who just want to play sports. Leaving aside any cynicism, Nike asks us to just do it – in expensive Nike gear of course. And the Nike Pro Hijab is a symbol that everyone has that same right – to just do it. Muslim, Christian, Jewish, whatever. That’s perhaps the best use of the Swoosh in the company’s history.

If I may be so bold, I’m hoping we’ll see the Nike Pro Yarmulke next. It may be a niche market, but I know of at least one guy who would have used it.

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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