A South Jersey referee forced Andrew Johnson to shave his chin stubble before his now controversial wrestling match, but raised no concerns about his dreadlocks until the high school student stepped onto the mat, the athlete’s attorney said.
In a video that has gone viral worldwide, Johnson, a junior at Buena Regional High School in Atlantic County, eventually decided to have his dark brown dreadlocks cut in a public shearing on the gym floor to avoid forfeiting his match against archrival Oakcrest High School.
The Dec. 19 incident ignited a firestorm in social media and a fierce debate about race and cultural bias in scholastic athletics. The incident is under investigation by the state Division on Civil Rights, and Alan Maloney, the referee at the center of the controversy, has been suspended by state athletic officials pending the outcome.
As details about the incident continue to emerge, Dominic Speziali, a Philadelphia attorney who represents Johnson and his family, disputed accounts that Maloney told Johnson that his hair was too long. After the referee arrived late and missed the weigh-in, Maloney, at first, did not raise any concerns about the length of Johnson’s hair or say that he needed to wear a hair covering during the inspection, the lawyer said.
“He was told to shave the stubble on his chin, but nothing about his dreadlocks,” Speziali said in an interview Friday. “He [Maloney] said nothing about the hair.”
When a question was later raised about his hair, Johnson, 16, asked Maloney to let him wear a cap under his headgear, but the referee rejected the covering because he said Andrew’s hair “wasn’t in its natural state” and referred to the dreadlocks as “braids," Speziali said. Buena coaches pleaded with Maloney to let Johnson compete, but to no avail, he said.
Speziali said Johnson did not have a headgear with a hair covering because his hair length did not require it; the school didn’t have one available. A covering must be worn if the wrestler’s hair extends past the earlobe, eyebrows, or neck, wrestling rules say.
Johnson had been allowed to compete, without a hair cover, the previous weekend at a tournament in Ocean County without incident, Speziali said. Maloney did not officiate that match.
At the dual match between Buena and Oakcrest, Johnson and his younger brother, Nate, a teammate, both were told by Maloney that they would need to wear a hair covering or they would be disqualified, Speziali said. Nate does not have dreadlocks and competed without a hair covering, the lawyer said.
It was unknown why Maloney told both brothers a hair covering was needed. “What is the issue with the hair that these gentlemen have?” Speziali asked.
Maloney has not responded to interview requests. Since the incident, Maloney and his family have received at least two death threats and Berlin Borough police have stepped up patrols in his Camden County neighborhood and parked a patrol car in front of his home. No one has been charged, said Police Chief Michael Miller.
“Our detectives are pursuing it," Miller said.
Maloney’s defenders say the veteran official was simply enforcing the rules when he refused to allow Johnson to compete. The team could have forfeited his bout, substituted another wrestler, or provided headgear that met requirements with a hair covering that attached to the earguards.
With 90 seconds to decide whether to cut his hair or forfeit his 120-pound bout, Andrew Johnson appeared visibly upset in a video that showed a school trainer shearing several inches from his locks. Because Johnson was already on the mat, he could not, under wrestling guidelines, return to the locker room for the cutting. With the packed gym watching, including his father, grandfather, and an older brother, Johnson’s hair was clipped.
Johnson went on to win his bout, 4-2, in overtime. Buena won the match, too. The fallout, however, has continued. The team resumed action Thursday in a tournament in North Jersey. Andrew Johnson and Nate, 14, a freshman, skipped the competition. Both want to wrestle again, their attorney said.
Gov. Phil Murphy is among a host of elected officials, athletes, and celebrities, including Olympian Jordan Burroughs and filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who have condemned the hair-cutting. Murphy tweeted that he was “deeply disturbed” by the incident.
Officials with the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union have raised concerns that the incident has racial overtones. Maloney is white; the Johnson brothers are biracial. A spokesperson for the state’s civil rights agency said it had not received any additional complaints about Maloney.
Buena Regional School Superintendent David C. Cappuccio Jr. announced Wednesday that the district’s athletic teams would not compete in any contest officiated by Maloney. The athletic association said groups that assign referees have been told not to assign Maloney to any matches pending the outcome.
In his more than 40 years as a state wresting official, Maloney, 62, built a reputation as a stickler for the rules, colleagues say. A former wrestler at then Edgewood High School in Winslow Township, Maloney is highly regarded as a referee and has been tapped to officiate some of the top matches in the state.
“The guy is a good referee. He just follows the rules to the ‘T,’ ” said Richie G. Raine of Pennsville, a retired wrestling official who was trained by Maloney. “He doesn’t bend.”
Ron Roberts, a wrestling official and a Buena graduate, has said that he visited his former high school team before the season started and advised Johnson and another athlete with dreadlocks that they would need to get the proper hair cover or cut their hair before taking the mat. Buena coach George Maxwell has not responded to messages.
Patrick Duff, who wrestled at Delran High in the 1990s with his brother, Bill, an All-American who later played in the NFL, said both had had run-ins with Maloney. Bill Duff was forced by Maloney to cut his sideburns before a match, and their father, who was often vocal in the stands, was ejected several times from their matches when he complained about Maloney’s calls, he said.
“Maloney didn’t like to be called out,” said Duff, of Haddon Heights.
Raine said his grandson, Michael Slusher, a wrestler at Pennsville High School, had his hair cut last year in order to compete at a tournament in Ewing after another referee told him his hair was too long. Slusher, 17, now a senior, did not have the proper headgear with a covering and his hair was too long, Raine said.
“It’s happened plenty of times,” said Raine, who was a wrestling official for about 12 years.
During competition, “all wrestlers shall be clean shaven, with sideburns trimmed no lower than earlobe level and hair trimmed and well groomed,” according to rules from the National Federation of State High School Associations. An official said the group would review guidelines for the hair covering at its annual rules meeting in April in the wake of the dreadlocks controversy.
“We don’t see it as dreadlocks. We just see it as long hair,” said Elliot Hopkins, national rules interpreter for the association, based in Indianapolis. “You’re allowed to have long hair, but it has to be put up in a cap that attaches to the earguards.”
Longtime Camden High School wrestling coach Hadley Thame, who is black and has known Maloney for about four decades, said the way Johnson’s hair was cut “was ugly” and said he believed Maloney could have better handled the dreadlocks incident. Maloney has always been tough, but fair, he said.
“He’s never openly done anything bad to me or the kids,” said Thame, a retired science teacher who has been Camden’s coach since 1976. “I may not have liked some of his scoring decisions, but I don’t think his scoring decisions had anything to do with the color of the skin of the kids.”
Maloney landed in another controversy in 2016 when he allegedly used a racial slur during a social gathering with referees after a match. Preston Hamilton, a referee who is black, reportedly slammed Maloney to the ground. Hamilton declined to comment this week, saying only about Maloney: “I feel that he should not be working.”
The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, which oversees high school athletics, gave both referees one-year suspensions but later overturned the decision.
Community activist Water Hudson said Maloney should be removed from officiating in light of the previous racial slur and the dreadlocks controversy. Several petitions on change.org have been signed by thousands demanding his ouster.
“We want a lifetime ban,” said Hudson, chairman of the National Awareness Alliance, a civil rights group based in Salem County.
Raine said he hopes Maloney will be reinstated.
“I just don’t understand why everyone is trying to crucify a guy who did what he was supposed to do,” Raine said.