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Referee blows call over turban; official orders soccer game replayed

May 14, 1997

A 13-year-old Indian boy prohibited from playing in a soccer match in New Jersey because he was wearing a turban will get to rejoin his teammates when the game is replayed.

Officials conceded Tuesday a referee erred Sunday when he refused to let Raj Thapar of West Orange play if he wore a patka to cover his hair as prescribed by the Sikh religion.

``I think the referee was a little insensitive to the situation,″ said Bob Katz, president of the board of trustees for the Mountaintop League of West Orange. ``I think he needs to be educated a little bit and be more sensitive to religious customs.″

Raj had played all season with the religious garment on his head without any questions from officials before referee Al Scarmato declared the turban inappropriate for play at the match in Highland Park.

His team, one of 11 fielded by Katz’s organization, lost 2-0.

``To my knowledge, there is nothing to be worn on the head whatsoever,″ Scarmato told The Star-Ledger of Newark in Tuesday’s editions. ``The only exception that I know of is the goalkeeper.″

He did not return telephone messages left at his Jamesburg home Tuesday.

Vincent Mauro, director of officials for the Chicago-based U.S. Soccer Federation, said rules allow ``those bound by religious law to wear those head coverings, usually a turban or a yarmulke.″

``I don’t know what happened with this particular referee,″ said Mauro, who oversees 85,000 soccer officials throughout the country. ``He erred on the safety side, but it was a mistake. It should be corrected and corrected soon.″

Earl Fielder, president of the Mid-New Jersey Youth Association, on Tuesday ordered the game replayed out of fairness to Raj and his team. No date has been set.

Raj said he was happy with the decision. His mother was attending for the first time on Mother’s Day with family friends, and the referee’s decision was especially hurtful, he said.

``I was humiliated, insulted,″ Raj said. ``I couldn’t play just because I’m a certain religion and that’s wrong. No other ref had any problems or objections.″

Tony Cullin, the state’s youth referee administrator, agreed some officials get ``overzealous″ about liability concerns when it comes to what players can wear.

``These things seem to come out in certain areas around the state,″ Cullin told the Star-Ledger. ``A referee once said eyeglasses aren’t safe, and he was afraid of being sued. My answer was if he’s afraid of getting sued, he shouldn’t be a referee anyway.″

Cullin could not be reached for comment Tuesday and it was unclear if any action would be taken against Scarmato.

Mauro said a similar situation arose last summer in Massachusetts and agreed referees need to be better educated on the issue.

He said the issue would be discussed at a national meeting planned for July in Orlando, Fla., and in a newsletter, but said leagues and coaches also need to make referees aware of players with special needs.

Katz said that had been done at the beginning of the season.

``We were assured there wouldn’t be a problem and he would be allowed to play,″ Katz said.

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