At sundown two days ago Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day on Atonement, came to an end, marking both the close of the High Holiday season and the last time most Jews will have a religious thought until Passover. This Yom Kippur also marked the 50th anniversary of the year Sandy Koufax, the great Jewish-American pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, sat out the first game of the 1965 World Series in observation of the holiday, a decision that turned the left-hander from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, into a folk hero to Jews still seeking their place in America.
Although Koufax’s decision only had a small impact on the outcome of the ’65 Series (his spot in the opening game was filled by the nearly-as-brilliant Don Drysdale, and Koufax would come back to pitch games two, five, and seven, helping the Dodgers beat the Minnesota Twins while picking up the series MVP trophy), its impact on the ever-shifting relationship between American sports and American religion was huge. Suddenly quiet, humble, press-shy, otherwise-secular Sanford Koufax was a hero not just to Jews but any member of a minority religion looking to stake his or her claim to America. In his small way Koufax helped the country grow up.
Today in Duluth, Minnesota, the broadening of the American mind and the evolution of the American sporting/religious experience are having another moment. As this story was going to press USA Boxing was determining if it will be possible under current international rules to allow a 15-year-old Muslim girl to fight in a sanctioned boxing match while wearing a hijab, the traditional Muslim veil worn by women in the presence of adult males outside their families, and long sleeves and tights. For Amaiya Zafar, a resident of Oakdale, Minnesota, who has been boxing for two years, the issue is a matter of modesty and faith. For USA Boxing it comes down to safety and internal consistency.
“If a boxer had an injury and they’re fully covered, how would we be able to detect if they had a shoulder out of joint or brace around their elbow because of injuries,” Angel Villarreal, USA Boxing’s chief of officials, told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “If I start deviating from the rules, then I’m going to have 30,000 different athletes calling because now they want to wear their trunks below their knees or they want to wear socks up to their thighs. I’m not questioning this family’s [motives], but it opens up the door for everybody else that’s not valid.”
Still, after hearing from Zafar and her family and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, USA Boxing agreed to petition the International Boxing Association (AIBA) in Switzerland for a change in the garment rules so that Zafar can fight tonight at Golden Gloves Back to School Duel 3. That petition went out yesterday but no answer has come back yet, and USA Boxing officials say they’re not holding out a lot of hope.
“We understand the sensitivity of this issue [Zafar] has,” said Mike Martino, USA Boxing’s executive director. “But we have 198 countries, and all the Middle East countries follow the rules. … The United States, because of our legal system, she has recourses that other countries don’t, and we have rights. But when you’re talking about worldwide sports, there’s not going to be an exception.”
Maybe in another, more enlightened time, when demagogic politicians like Donald Trump and Ben Carson haven’t been stirring up Americans’ ugliest instincts, Zafar’s petition wouldn’t be a big deal. Rules are rules, after all, and AIBA and USA Boxing seem more concerned with fighter safety and tradition than making social statements. But since America is what it is (Volatile? Moody? Amnesiac?), and since we’re living in a time when viable presidential contenders can say out loud that a Muslim shouldn’t be president and a 14-year-old Muslim boy can get arrested for bringing a handmade clock to school—in America—attempts to alter boxing’s garment regulations so that one young Muslim girl can fight could take on the weight and significance of a political protest. And while Amaiya Zafar says she just wants to box, history has a funny way of deciding who its social symbols and political heroes are going to be. So who knows how far her legend might go? A couple of championship belts won while wearing a hijab and Amaiya Zafar might turn out to be a Sandy Koufax for a new American age.
Check out these related stories:
The Mixed Martial Arts of Victorian London
Before BJJ, there was Bartitsu.
Jonathan Maicelo: The Last Inca
Peru's up-and-coming boxing star.
Kron Gracie on Jiu-Jitsu, Skateboarding, Older Brothers, and Famous Fathers
The ties that bind are strong.
Joel Tudor on the Art of Surfing, Fighting, and Style
A surf icon helps MMA keep its sense of tradition.
Japan's Karate Kid: Kyoji Horiguchi
Japan's brightest MMA prospect.