Feb 22, 2014; Syracuse, NY, USA; Maryland Terrapins attackman Colin Heacock (41) runs past Syracuse Orange defenseman Brandon Mullins (11) during the fourth quarter of a game at the Carrier Dome. Maryland won the game 16-8. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports
Photo Credit: Mark Konezny

Verdict – My son Ben, an eleven-year-old who is devoted in equal parts to soccer and his long and shaggy hair, can rest easy tonight. A boy in Indiana (who just happens to share his last name) has sued for and won the right for male athletes to wear their hair long during the season—or at least for the right not to be forced to cut their hair while female athletes are allowed to wear theirs long.

In Hayden v. Greensburg Community School Corp., the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that A.H., a boy who was repeatedly cut from the basketball team because of his refusal to cut his hair short—“above the ears, eyebrows, and collar,” per the policy of the boys’ basketball coach—was the victim of illegal sex discrimination. In this column, I’ll discuss the ruling and why, although it corrects some of the missteps of other federal courts in grooming code cases, it does not go far enough to eliminate the gross stereotyping implicit in many sex-specific appearance codes.

Grooming Codes for Athletes in Greensburg, Indiana Public Schools

This case arises out of the policies of the public middle and high schools in Greensburg, Indiana. The school district maintains a “dress and grooming” policy that directs the superintendent to “establish such grooming guidelines as are necessary to promote discipline, maintain order, secure the safety of students, and provide a healthy environment conductive to academic purposes.” District guidelines, in turn, defer to individual principals to develop appropriate codes.

Athletes in this district are subject to a general rule on hair styles, which prohibits any style that might “create problems of health and sanitation, obstruct vision, or call undue attention to the athlete are not acceptable.” Specifically prohibited are styles that include or reflect “insignias, numbers, initials, or extremes in differing lengths;” mohawks and hair coloring are also not permitted.

The general policy does not specify hair length, but instead dictates that each varsity head coach will determine the “acceptable length of hair for a particular sport,” and athletes are warned to “ask a coach before trying out for a team if you have a question regarding hair styles.”

The Claims in Hayden v. Greensburg Community School Corporation

In his lawsuit, A.H. claimed that the short-hair policy was unlawful under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the federal constitution, as well as under Title IX, the federal law banning sex discrimination by educational institutions. Regardless of the legal theory, the remedy sought was the same: a ruling that would allow him to play basketball without first cutting his hair.

The court considered A.H.’s due process claim with some sympathy, but ultimately rejected it. Although there are cases suggesting that the right to choose one’s hair length and style is an aspect of liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment, the court concluded that the choice of hair style could not, given other Supreme Court precedents, rise to the level of a fundamental right. The government (in this case, the public school) is thus allowed to restrict hairstyles unless it has no rational reason for doing so. But given that A.H. did not make any concerted effort to prove that the policy lacked a rational basis, the court concluded that it did not violate the Due Process Clause.

The court agreed, however, with A.H. that the policy violated both the Equal Protection Clause and Title IX because it singled out at least some boys for a grooming requirement from which all girls were exempt. The court’s reasoning is discussed below, but it comes against a backdrop of a general law of dress and grooming codes that should be discussed first.

May 27, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA;Duke Blue Devils midfielder Brendan Fowler (3) celebrates his teams 16-10 victory over the Syracuse Orange following the 2013 NCAA Division I Men's Lacrosse Championship Game at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Photo Credit: Rich Barnes

Lax bros everywhere can now fight for their right to don their flowing locks, at least in Indiana according to the court ruling Hayden v. Greensburg Community School Corp. A student who was repeatedly cut from his high school basketball team due to his hair length sued the school district and won. The court, ruling in his favor, cited that the student was a victim of illegal sex discrimination. Moreover, the coach’s policy violated both the Equal Protection Clause and Title IX because it singled out at least some boys for a grooming requirement, whereas all girls were exempt.