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College basketball

Muslim basketball player quits USF team

Andrea Armstrong said she is leaving due to increased attention, but a Muslim rights leader says it was out of fear.

By GREG AUMAN
Published September 16, 2004

TAMPA - Andrea Armstrong, the USF women's basketball player who was seeking NCAA approval to wear religious clothing during practice and games, quit the team Wednesday, saying she did not want her Muslim religion to become a distraction for her team.

But the leader of a local Muslim rights group said the 22-year-old was frightened by hate e-mails and negative reactions she's encountered since a St. Petersburg Times article detailed her story Saturday.

"The controversy with USF and the NCAA was peanuts compared to the backlash that has erupted," said Ahmed Bedier of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who spoke with Armstrong on Wednesday night. "The bigger fight is against public opinion and the bigotry and ignorance we have in our society."

Armstrong could not be reached for comment.

The 6-foot-3 senior quit the team two weeks ago but rejoined Friday, after Bedier's group sent the university a letter protesting "a case of apparent religious discrimination."

This time, Armstrong said she's left the team for good, though she will remain on scholarship this season.

"Knowing the potential of my team and how hard coach (Jose) Fernandez and the rest of the coaching staff is working with the team, I don't want this issue to cause further distraction," Armstrong wrote in a letter to Fernandez and released by USF. "I am concerned that this is dividing my team, school and community. Because of this concern, I believe it best to withdraw from the team."

Armstrong recently converted to Islam and sought to wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts and a Muslim head scarf with her uniform in games, allowing her to comply with Islamic codes that require a woman's skin to be covered.

An NCAA official said Wednesday there would be no obvious problems with such a uniform waiver request, that no such appeal had ever been denied by the NCAA.

Armstrong told the Times last week that Fernandez had told her the clothing would make teammates uncomfortable and that Islam oppresses women. She also said he called her parents in Oregon and warned them that she had joined a cult. In announcing her decision Wednesday, USF offered a letter written from Fernandez to Armstrong, reiterating that both of her decisions to quit the team were completely voluntary and that she was under no pressure to do so.

"The Department of Athletics is committed to a comfortable and inclusive environment for our student athletes, and we want to be sure that no one pressured you to quit the team," Fernandez wrote. " ... I believ e that you clearly understood that USF will not tolerate discrimination, harassment or retaliation."

Those, however, are exactly what Armstrong has encountered since Saturday, Bedier said. She endured people saying things to her on campus, heard negative responses on talk radio and received vulgar e-mails that bashed her and her religion. The Times has received similar e-mails and phone messages since the story was published.

"She's away from her family, here by herself. ... It really scared her," said Bedier, who said his group supports her decision to quit the team. "I think she was overwhelmed with the amount of attention she was receiving. She didn't want to be the center of negative feelings. She felt frightened, and decided this for her safety, No. 1."

[Last modified September 16, 2004, 01:30:23]


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