Three Sikh men from Fresno were nearly denied entrance to Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego earlier this month because they were wearing turbans – and then their car was inspected by a bomb-sniffing police dog.
The men drove seven hours from Fresno Dec. 6 to watch their favorite football team, the Denver Broncos, take on the San Diego Chargers. Their story made national headlines after KGTV in San Diego initially reported it.
Turbans are a symbol of dedication and self-respect in Sikhism. The three men color-coordinated the turbans with their orange jerseys. They were accompanied by two other Sikh friends who were not wearing turbans.
Amrinder Singh said the security guards let in the two men who didn’t have turbans on. But when he and the remaining two men got to the front of the security line, guards told them to remove their turbans.
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“I just explained to him that this is our religion and our faith,” he said. “We can’t remove our turbans.”
Sikhism is the world’s fifth-largest religion.
Singh said the guard told him they wouldn’t be let in without removing the turbans. Later, a supervisor showed up. Singh suggested that they run a metal detector over their heads instead.
“But he said no, that’s the policy – you have to remove your hats. I said, ‘This is not a hat,’ ” Singh said.
Eventually, Singh said, the men convinced the security guards to use the metal detector and let them in. But he said the guards warned that next time they come to a game, they’ll have to remove the turbans.
Mike McSweeney, Qualcomm Stadium manager, said the Chargers exclusively contract with Elite Show Services for security services. He said the Chargers adhere to NFL policies and practices for crowd control and safety.
Chargers spokesman Bill Johnston said in a statement that safety is a top priority.
“We are conducting a careful review of the situation through discussions with our security contractor and the San Diego Police Department,” the statement said. “We have learned that the fans were admitted to the stadium and made it to their seats well in advance of the start of the game. Still, our security contractors are taking this opportunity to reinforce current policies and procedures with their personnel to ensure a safe and pleasant experience for all fans.”
A lot of people looked at us like we’d done something wrong.
Neither Johnston nor NFL representatives responded to multiple requests to elaborate on what those policies and procedures are, especially regarding security and religious garments.
Sikhism is the world’s fifth-largest religion. More than 30,000 Sikhs live in the central San Joaquin Valley.
Sikhs have been mistaken targets of hate crimes and harassment since 9/11 by people who erroneously identify them as Muslim. In 2012, a white supremacist killed six people in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. After the San Bernardino attack, a Sikh temple in Orange County was vandalized with anti-Islam graffiti.
Gurjot Kaur, a senior staff attorney with the Sikh Coalition, said
what happened was an issue of cultural competency. For Sikhs, removing their turban in public is akin to being naked. She said people are not required to remove their turbans while going through security at airports, as well as at federal and state prisons.
“Turbans are not a security threat,” she said. “The NFL definitely needs to do a better job of ensuring their security guards are educated on that front.”
Police and the five men have differing accounts about what happened next.
Singh and his friends said they walked to a nearby Costco to print their game tickets. One of the non-turbaned men put a shoebox in the trunk of their car after purchasing new ones at Costco. They walked inside the stadium to watch the game.
Meanwhile, they said police used a bomb-sniffing dog to check out their car. Officers never contacted the men, but another tailgater took a video of it and showed them when the game was over.
Lt. Scott Wahl, spokesman for the San Diego Police Department, said someone who was tailgating in the parking lot waved down an officer and said three guys in turbans were fiddling with some boxes in the trunk of a car, then closed the trunk and left the stadium lot.
It had nothing to do with being discriminatory against those gentlemen.
Lt. Scott Wahl, San Diego police
Wahl said that’s odd because most people don’t leave the stadium after parking there. He said the department brings a bomb-sniffing dog to every game to sweep the stadium.
Wahl said the dog was used as a precaution and it didn’t detect anything in the car. He said the tailgater and officers did the right thing.
“It had nothing to do with being discriminatory against those gentlemen,” he said. “People who walk up to a car and put packages in the trunk and then leave – that is suspicious.”
In any case, Singh said the incident left him feeling profiled and disrespected.
“A lot of people looked at us like we’d done something wrong,” he said. “We feel so awful.”