Civil Rights Investigation Opened After Black Wrestler Had to Cut His Dreadlocks

By Michael Gold and Jeffery C. Mays


Dec. 21, 2018

The referee will not be assigned to further matches “until this matter has been thoroughly reviewed,” according to a statement by the state's high-school sports association.


New Jersey state officials said on Saturday that they opened a civil rights investigation into the case of a black high school wrestler with dreadlocks who was forced to make a choice: cut his hair or forfeit his match.

The wrestler, Andrew Johnson, was told by a referee that his hair and the hair cover he was wearing violated wrestling rules during a competition on Thursday in southern New Jersey. He wanted to compete. So he stood, forlorn and resigned, as he received a hurried, last-minute haircut while teammates from Buena Regional High School shouted their support.

With his dreadlocks shorn, Mr. Johnson went on to win his match but the episode drew widespread attention and condemnation.

Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey said in a statement: “Seeing Mr. Johnson forced by an official into a choice between giving up who he is or giving up his ability to compete was nothing short of disturbing. That he went on to win his match after this experience speaks to an incredible depth of character — and to our need to see that no future student-athlete has to endure a similar situation.”

The New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, a part of the state’s Office of the Attorney General, is investigating, officials confirmed on Saturday. The referee, Alan Maloney, will not be assigned to further matches “until this matter has been thoroughly reviewed,” Larry White, the executive director of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, said in a statement. The association oversees high school sports in the state.

Mr. White’s statement continued: “Finally, as an African-American and parent — as well as a former educator, coach, official and athlete — I clearly understand the issues at play, and probably better than most,” he said. “The N.J.S.I.A.A. takes this matter very seriously, and I ask that everyone respect the investigatory process related to all parties involved.”

A local reporter captured the scene on video and shared it. As the reporter saw it, Mr. Johnson’s decision made him the ultimate team player.

But as the video drew more attention on Friday, many viewers saw something else: a white official forcing a black teenager to surrender a part of his identity.

The filmmaker Ava DuVernay described the cutting of Mr. Johnson’s dreadlocks as the “criminalization of what grows from him.”

Another issue later came to light: Mr. Maloney, who is white, had been accused in 2016 of using a racial slur against a black referee at a social gathering of New Jersey wrestling officials. Mr. Maloney was suspended, but the suspension was overturned after an appeals process and he was allowed to continue officiating.

Critics pointed to that episode in accusing Mr. Maloney of racial bias in his response to Mr. Johnson’s hair.

The commissioner of the State Department of Education, Lamont O. Repollet, said in a statement that the department does not “condone such behavior.”

The division on civil rights and the state athletic association entered into a memorandum of understanding in 2013 after “racially charged” comments marred a high school football game on Thanksgiving Day 2012, state officials said.

In that episode, Jabrill Peppers, a black player from Paramus Catholic High School who now plays professional football for the Cleveland Browns, said spectators called him and his teammates racial slurs and dressed in prison garb in an attempt to ridicule Mr. Peppers, whose father was in prison at the time, according to reports shortly after the incident.

The agreement banned verbal or physical harassment related to race, gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation by players, coaches, staff and spectators. It also set up training for game officials and created a process to investigate and penalize violations of the rules.

In September, the division and the association sent a reminder after recent racist episodes, including one on May 1 in which a Haddonfield Memorial High School lacrosse player was reported to have used a racial slur against a female track athlete from Sterling High School. The season was subsequently canceled.

Mr. Maloney did not respond to phone or email messages. Neither did several officials from the southern chapter of the New Jersey Wrestling Officials Association, of which Mr. Maloney is a member.

Mr. Johnson could also not be reached for comment. One of his parents met with school district officials to discuss what happened, the school district said in its statement.

Ron Roberts, another wrestling referee and a member of the same association chapter, said he had spoken to Mr. Maloney on Friday about what had happened and that Mr. Maloney was “just upset about the situation,” which he believed had been taken out of context.

The athletic association, in its statement, said that it was reviewing whether Mr. Johnson violated rules by the National Federation of State High School Associations about wrestlers’ hair.

Roy Dragon, who is in charge of interpreting the rules for the state wrestling officials association, declined to comment.

According to the federation’s rule book, wrestlers’ hair must not fall below the back of an athlete’s shirt collar, earlobes or eyebrows.

Wrestlers with long hair are allowed to wear a hair covering that has to be “made of solid material and nonabrasive.”

Mr. Roberts, a graduate of Buena High School who has been a wrestling official for more than 20 years, said that he visited the team last week to review the rules.

When he was there, he said he told Mr. Johnson and another student with long hair that they would need proper hair coverings to compete.

“I told them in front of the coach,” he said. “So the awareness of the hair was brought up by myself last week.”

After the meeting, Mr. Johnson competed in the team’s first match of the season without incident. George Maxwell, the Buena wrestling coach, and the school’s athletic director, David Albertson, did not respond to requests for comment.

Mr. Roberts said that usually, before the competitions begin, there are “pre-meet” discussions between officials, coaches and wrestlers on issues like uniforms, hair, facial hair or fingernails. He did not know whether this had occurred Thursday night with Mr. Johnson.

If those violations have not been addressed by the time the wrestlers have reached the competition mat, Mr. Roberts said, athletes have 90 seconds to correct the problem.

In a situation similar to the one involving Mr. Johnson, wrestlers would have three options, Mr. Roberts said: put on an appropriate hair cover, forfeit or get an approved haircut.

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