Andrew Johnson of Buena Regional High School was all set to wrestle an opponent from Oakcrest High School this week in New Jersey when he was told he had to change something about himself or risk hurting his team.
Before he could compete Johnson, who is African American, was told by referee Alan Maloney, a Caucasian, that he had to cut off his dreadlocks or forfeit the match. This all happened despite Johnson’s hair being covered at the time.
The rule on hair in high school wrestling is, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations in New Jersey, that if a wrestler’s natural hair extends below the earlobe on the sides of touches the top of a normal shirt, it is required to be secured with a hair cover. Those rules do not state anything about hair needing to be cut if it is a certain length or style.
After being threatened with costing his team the match, Johnson decided to have his hair cut. A coach for Buena removed Johnson’s dreadlocks beside the mats, while teammates offered him encouragement.
With his dreadlocks removed Johnson won his match. Maloney then raised the emotional high schooler’s hand in victory.
According to The Guardian, New Jersey’s Interscholastic Athletic Association released a statement recommending that Maloney not be assigned to any event until there has been a thorough review of his actions.
The incident involving Johnson and Maloney went viral after reporter Mike Frankel of South New Jersery Today shared video footage on twitter of Johnson’s hair being cut.
Epitome of a team player ⬇️— Mike Frankel (@MikeFrankelSNJ) December 20, 2018
A referee wouldn't allow Andrew Johnson of Buena @brhschiefs to wrestle with a cover over his dreadlocks. It was either an impromptu haircut, or a forfeit. Johnson chose the haircut, then won by sudden victory in OT to help spark Buena to a win. pic.twitter.com/f6JidKNKoI
Frankel later followed up his initial tweet with further details of what he witnessed at the meet. “The wrestler’s coaches argued the referee’s decision for several minutes, until the referee started the injury time clock,” he wrote.
“At this point, the wrestler removed the cap, and agreed to have his hair cut.”
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy tweeted about the incident, writing that he was “deeply disturbed” that Johnson was “forced to choose between keeping his dreadlocks and competing in a wrestling tournament.”
Deeply disturbed that Andrew Johnson, a student at Buena Regional H.S., was forced to choose between keeping his dreadlocks and competing in a wrestling tournament. No student should have to needlessly choose between his or her identity & playing sports. https://t.co/xfrXrpHpov— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) December 22, 2018
“No student should have to needlessly choose between his or her identity & playing sports,” continued Murphy.
Yesterday evening, Olympic gold medalist and five time world champion Jordan Burroughs, — who is from New Jersey — spoke out about this incident on Twitter.
“I’ve been wrestling for 25 years, at every level, and I have never once seen a person required to cut their hair during a match,” tweeted Burroughs. “This is nonsense.”
A thread: I'm sure a lot of you have heard about the young man who was forced to cut his hair during a wrestling match in order to avoid being disqualified. That young man is Andrew Johnson of Buena High School in New Jersey. Let me start off by saying, I commend Andrew for— Jordan Burroughs (@alliseeisgold) December 22, 2018
Burroughs went on to tweet that he believed Maloney’s actions were, “a combination of an abuse of power, racism, and just plain negligence.”
Burroughs also stated the he believed Johnson was ‘heroic’ in his handling of the situation. “No single victory is worth succumbing to the pressure of unjust oppression and the unwarranted stripping of that identity,” added Burroughs, who also called for Maloney to be “held accountable.”
The New Jersey branch of the American Civil Liberties Union also weighed in on the incident, stating (per The Guardian): “How many different ways will people try to exclude black people from public life without having to declare their bigotry? We’re so sorry this happened to you, Andrew. This was discrimination, and it’s not OK.”
This is not the first time Maloney has been accused of discrimination. According to the Courier Post newspaper Maloney allegedly poked an African American referee in the chest and used a racial slur during an argument over homemade wine in 2016.