Despite official permission to observe an age-old religious practice, the basketball team of an Orthodox Jewish high school in North Hollywood has been criticized by referees and harassed by players and spectators for wearing yarmulkes during games.
One referee delayed a game involving Valley Torah High School more than half an hour, refusing to allow the school's players to wear the religious skullcaps during play. In another game, a referee insisted that the players from the North Hollywood school use tape to keep the headgear on, instead of pins or clips.
The team also has endured snide comments from opponents and spectators regarding the yarmulkes.
"In every game we get weird looks and remarks from somebody," Torah senior forward Todd Davidovits said. "It's not like we wear these for fun. We're not trying to make a fashion statement or anything."
Orthodox Jewish males are required to always wear the small, cloth skullcaps, which symbolize a constant recognition of God.
The California Interscholastic Federation rule book states that no head wear is allowed in basketball games except for medical or religious reasons.
At the start of each season the school gets a letter signed by CIF Southern Section Commissioner Dean Crowley granting its players special permission to wear the skullcaps. The letter must be presented to referees before games.
School administrators say they have no explanation for why the basketball players are encountering these unprecedented problems.
The director of the San Fernando Valley chapter of the Anti-Defamation League is puzzled and outraged at the developments.
"It seems to be defeating the purpose of the value of fostering team spirit and mutual respect," said Roni Blau. "There's no reason for it and we vigorously protest it."
Torah is not the only school to encounter problems. Yeshiva High School, an Orthodox Jewish institution in Los Angeles, has experienced its share of incidents in past years involving yarmulkes. Yeshiva coach Ed Gelb says a couple of years ago a referee refused to officiate one of his team's home games if players wore yarmulkes.
"So we played with only one official," said Gelb, who also is the school's athletic director. "We've had officials make us wear duct tape and fans throw pennies at us. It has a tremendously bad effect on the kids. The kids really fall apart emotionally when that kind of thing goes on. It has no place in high school sports."
Gelb, who is in his sixth season as Yeshiva coach, says he seldom encounters problems with referees now because most are familiar with his team.
At Torah, however, difficulties began this season. At a game against Whitney High School in Cerritos, official Dale Earnshaw disregarded the CIF letter and insisted that the yarmulkes be removed.
He delayed tip-off about 40 minutes and threatened to cancel the game if Torah players did not remove their yarmulkes.
When Torah Coach Matt Meisels repeatedly refused to comply, Earnshaw reluctantly proceeded with the game.
"He was just mean and vicious and he came at us in a belligerent way," said Torah senior forward Jon Samuels, who is also the team captain. "It was horrible."
Whitney Coach Joseph Webber said the referee's behavior was inappropriate.
"I had trouble trying to understand his view," Webber said. "The most idiotic thing was him trying to refute the letter from the CIF. He just wouldn't accept it and that upset me."
In the third quarter of Torah's 97-50 loss to Whitney, Earnshaw called a technical foul against Torah senior forward Michael Clement after his yarmulke fell to the floor, Clement said.
When Meisels stepped out of the coaching box to argue the call, Earnshaw issued another technical and had the coach ejected.
"I heard a whistle and I had no idea what it was for," Clement said. "Then he said, 'That's a technical! Your hat fell off!' I didn't even have a chance to pick it up. When I questioned it, he didn't even listen."
Last week, Earnshaw denied issuing a technical as a result of the yarmulke flying off. He could not, however, recall what the first technical was for.
"That's ridiculous," Meisels said. "What was it for, then? You don't call a technical just for a foul. He was furious before the game started. It's pretty clear what he was doing. In my years coaching this is the first time I've faced this. I see there's still a lot of hatred out there."
However, Earnshaw, a referee for seven years, says he feels no hatred or prejudice. In fact, he says, he has no objection to the wearing of the yarmulke. He does object to the metal clips and pins often used to hold them in place.
"Somebody could get hurt," Earnshaw said. "No metal object is allowed in the hair, not even for the girls. Somebody's forgetting basketball is a game of contact."
In a letter dated Dec. 20, a day after the game in question, Earnshaw wrote federation commissioner Crowley a letter expressing his concerns, stating that the clips and pins used by Torah players were "abrasive, hard and dangerous."