School districts across the country allow their athletic departments and coaches to regulate student player appearances, including rules requiring male players to wear short hair styles. In a recent decision,Hayden v. Greensburg Community School Corporation, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, struck down such a hair length rule for male basketball and baseball players at an Indiana school. The court found that the rule illegally discriminated against male students. The case is one of the first in decades to address hair length rules in school, and one of the only cases ever to address the important role of such rules in school athletics. Although the decision appears at first blush to be a warning against such rules, a closer look at the decision shows critical limitations that soften its blow. Although the case justifies school leaders taking a close look at hair length rules in male athletics programs, it certainly is not the death knell for such rules when properly designed.

The Court’s Decision

In Hayden, the parents of a middle school basketball player challenged a hair length rule on the boys’ basketball team. According to the coach of the basketball team, the rule was intended to promote team unity and project a “clean cut” image for the team. The student, however, did not “feel like himself” with short hair and alleged that the rule, among other things, discriminated against him based on his gender. The school’s boys’ baseball team had a similar hair length rule, but none of the girls’ teams did.

The Court did not foreclose that a boys’ team could have a hair length rule even if the female team did not have a similar rule. Borrowing a standard from employment discrimination cases dealing with grooming standards, the court assumed (without deciding) that a school may have sex-differentiated standards if they are: (1) in some way justified by community norms; and (2) part of a comprehensive, evenly-enforced grooming code that imposes comparable burdens—if not identical ones—on males and females alike. Applying that standard, the court held that the hair length rule discriminated against male students on the basis of gender based on the second prong of the test.  Although the parties stipulated that female players were subjected to some grooming standards, there were no facts regarding the content of those standards, and so the court could not “assess whether the standards [applied to girls] are comparable, [to those applied to boys], notwithstanding the disparity in the hair-length component of the grooming standards.”

Application by School Leaders 

The Seventh Circuit’s decision, which is one of the first of its kind and one of the first decisions addressing hair lengths in schools in decades, has garnered media attention and warrants a close look at hair length policies in male athletic programs.  But as the summary above shows, there are important limitations necessary to understanding how the case should be applied by school leaders. Specifically, the court did not hold that boys’-only hair length policies are not acceptable in K-12 public schools. Rather, the court suggested that such hair-length policies are acceptable if they are based on relevant community norms and are part of a larger grooming program that includes limitations that are comparably limiting to male and female students.

Notably, it cannot simply be assumed that hair-length policies for boys are based on relevant community norms. The Hayden court questioned whether male hair length standards (which came about decades ago in the 1960s and 1970s) are still relevant community standards today. As the court pointed out, some members of the court “might [even] find themselves in trouble” under such a rule, which prohibited hair worn over the ears, collar, or eyebrows. But as the dissent pointed out, the courts have adopted an extremely deferential view of such questions in the employment context, finding that appearance regulations are defensible if they have some justification in accepted social norms. So school districts should be able to successfully argue that, at least in their communities, hair-length rules for boys are based on relevant community norms.

Care should also be taken to establish that there is an overarching grooming policy that is equally harsh on boys and girls alike. The court provided some examples of questions it might ask to determine if a boys’ hair length policy is part of a larger, consistently-applied grooming program that includes limitations on both male and female students. For example, a court might ask:

  • Are female students prohibited from wearing jewelry?
  • Are female students required to wear their hair in any particular way with the goal of having a neat, clean-cut appearance?
  • Are there limits, other than those on “extreme” hairdos like Mohawks, on how female students can style their hair and are any of those limits based on community norms (e.g., a prohibition on “buzz cuts”)?
  • Are the respective grooming standards enforced evenhandedly between girls and boys?

Although these are just examples, they provide some insight into the types of limitations on female programs that a court might consider when determining if a grooming policy limits boys and girls equally.

Based on this case, school leaders should take a close look at any gender specific grooming policies for their sports teams to ensure that they are based on relevant community standards and that any limitations that apply to only one gender are based on community norms and are part of a comprehensive grooming policy that, as a whole, is equally burdensome on male and female players. If a rule complies with these standards, it will be in the best position to withstand scrutiny even after theHayden decision.