N.J. ref suspended for 2 years over forced haircut of wrestler with dreadlocks

In this image taken from a Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018 video provided by SNJTODAY.COM, Buena Regional High School wrestler Andrew Johnson gets his hair cut courtside minutes before his match in Buena, N.J. (Michael Frankel/SNJTODAY.COM via AP)

In this image taken from a Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018 video provided by SNJTODAY.COM, Buena Regional High School wrestler Andrew Johnson gets his hair cut courtside minutes before his match in Buena, N.J. (Michael Frankel/SNJTODAY.COM via AP)

The New Jersey Attorney General’s Division on Civil Rights concluded its investigation into a high school referee who forced an Atlantic County wrestler to choose between keeping his long, locked hair or forfeit a match. 

The teenage Buena Regional High School wrestler Andrew Johnson acquiesced to having his finger-length locs cut prior to a match against a rival school in December 2018. 

And now nearly a year later Alan Maloney, the referee who issued the ultimatum, will be suspended for two seasons, per an agreement between the state and the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA.) 

The agreement also requires implicit bias training for officials and staff involved in high school sports statewide by June 2021. Johnson identifies as mixed race and many observers questioned whether Maloney forced the haircut because of his locked hairstyle. 

“Student athletes should be able to compete with each other on a level playing field,” said Attorney General Gurbir Grewal in a press release. “Racial discrimination in the enforcement of the rules of any sport is inconsistent with the spirit of fair play.”

The civil right’s division also released new guidance on racial discrimination based on hairstyle, that warns “treating people differently due to their hairstyle” may violate the state’s anti-discrimination laws. The guidance offers help to prevent such incidents in the future, saying policies that ban or restrict hairstyles associated with being black may be illegal.

After the forced haircut, Johnson secured a victory which helped his team beat Oakcrest High School. His triumph was overshadowed after video footage of a white team staff member cutting his hair hit social media and incited outrage across the country. 

According to parallel investigations by the civil rights division and NJSIAA, the referee deemed Johnson’s hair in violation of Rule 4.2.1, which “governs the length of an athlete’s hair and when an athlete must wear a hair cover.” The rule was previously interpreted by other New Jersey officials to allow wrestlers with “traditionally black hairstyles” to wear a hair cover. 

But at the match, Maloney deemed Johnson’s hair to be unnatural, according to the division’s investigation. Maloney said Johnson had to wear a hair cover. However, the wrestler could not find one that met the regulations. 

The two agencies also agreed that NJSIAA would provide “in-person training to all of its local Rules Interpreters and to all wrestling officials in the state to emphasize that Rule 4.2.1 is based solely on hair length, not on hair style.” 

This training, expected to be completed before the start of this year’s wrestling season, will also explain the “the long history of discrimination based on hair style.”

“We hope students can be free to focus on doing their best and not worrying that their hair will subject them to differential treatment based on race,” said Rachel Wainer Apter, director of the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights. “And we hope that all people in New Jersey can feel free to live and work without fear that they will be discriminated against because of their hairstyle.”

Andrew’s father Charles Johnson, Sr. declined to comment, and the family’s attorney Dominic Speziali could not be reached. 

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