A judge has dismissed a lawsuit by a suspended high school referee who gave a South Jersey wrestler only seconds to choose between having his dreadlocks cut or forfeiting his match in 2018.
In a decision Tuesday, Superior Court Judge John Porto rejected defamation and other claims by veteran officiant Alan Maloney that the Buena Regional High School District in Atlantic County breached its duty to him by suspending him. Porto’s decision on the lawsuit filed by Maloney last year against the district, its wrestling coach, and athletic director followed a motion by the district in March to dismiss the case.
The incident in December 2018 involved Andrew Johnson, then a junior at Buena Regional High School, who was given 90 seconds to decide his fate. Johnson, 16, agreed to have several inches of his dreadlocks cut after Maloney told him he could not compete without a hair covering that met regulation standards.
A video of a distressed Johnson standing on the mat as a Buena trainer used scissors to cut his hair made international headlines. The incident prompted accusations of racism and cultural bias. Johnson is biracial. Maloney is white.
The New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association, which oversees high school sports, suspended Maloney and barred him from officiating at any meets pending the outcome of investigations. Later, after an investigation by the state Division on Civil Rights, state Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal sidelined Maloney for two years in September 2019.
Maloney remains suspended, according to an NJSIAA spokesperson who declined comment Thursday on the lawsuit dismissal. Maloney, who had contended that he was unfairly disciplined, previously removed the NJSIAA and other association officers as defendants in the case.
Maloney, of Berlin Borough, and his attorney, Louis Barbone, did not respond to messages seeking comment. Known as a stickler for the rules, Maloney has defended his actions during the match.
In his lawsuit, Maloney contended the NJSIAA failed to follow due process when it suspended him. His notice of intent to file suit alleged defamation of character and emotional distress and cited a loss of income of $100,000.
The suit also contended that Buena wrestling coach Gregory Maxwell and athletic director David Albertson failed to follow wrestling rules for hair coverings and the backlash against Maloney that ensued was their fault. He contended the two breached their duty by allowing Johnson to wrestle without the proper equipment.
Porto, in a 16-page ruling, sided with Buena, finding that Maloney, not the school officials, “was in the best position to address what he considered a rules enforcement issue and he did so.” The judge issued an order dropping the lawsuit against Maxwell and Albertson, the sole remaining defendants, barring an appeal.
Roshan Shah, the attorney for Maxwell and Albertson, hailed the judge’s ruling. He likened Maloney’s argument to a basketball referee calling a foul, to the displeasure of fans.
“He was the referee and he made a decision,” Shah said Thursday. “The crowd didn’t like it.”
Since the incident, wrestling rules have been changed and officiants have been directed to interpret rules about hair for athletes based on the length, not style such as braids, twists, knots, or the dreadlocks worn by Johnson. The state also mandated implicit bias training for high school athletics staff.