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Olympic champion Jordan Burroughs blasts referee, coaches in Buena wrestling controversy

Olympic wrestler weighs in on behalf of South Jersey athlete who cut his dreadlocks to compete.

U.S. wrestler Jordan Burroughs, celebrates after winning an Olympic gold medal against Iran's Sadegh Saeed Goudarzi in the 74-kg men's freestyle competition. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
U.S. wrestler Jordan Burroughs, celebrates after winning an Olympic gold medal against Iran's Sadegh Saeed Goudarzi in the 74-kg men's freestyle competition. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)Read moreASSOCIATED PRESS

Former Olympic wrestling champion Jordan Burroughs on Saturday sharply criticized the referee who warned a South Jersey wrestler he could not compete last week with his uncovered dreadlocks, leading the athlete to cut his hair moments before the match.

In his defense on Twitter of Buena High School wrestler Andrew Johnson, Burroughs also called out Johnson’s coaches and parents of other team members for failing to intervene.

“This young man should have been protected in this moment,” wrote Burroughs, a state champion wrestler at Winslow Township High School who won a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics.

Video of Johnson’s hair being cut before his overtime victory in a bout against Oakcrest High School had been viewed more than 13 million times by Saturday afternoon, creating a firestorm on social media and leading to a state investigation.

In another development Saturday, Berlin Borough police confirmed that Alan Maloney and a member of his family had received threatening cell phone calls that included warnings of violence as well as “just name-calling.”

Police are investigating.

“Our officers are aware and are taking the necessary steps to make sure there are no attempts of harm against him,” Berlin Borough Police Sgt. T.J. Varano said.

Burroughs, a four-time world champion, said the incident was an example “of a combination of an abuse of power, racism, and negligence.”

The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA), which oversees high school sports in the state, has referred the matter to the state Attorney General’s Office for review.

In an updated statement released on Saturday morning, NJSIAA executive director Larry White confirmed that the “NJSIAA will be working with the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights, providing all requested information.”

White also confirmed that Maloney will not be assigned to any additional wrestling matches under NJSIAA jurisdiction “until this matter has been thoroughly reviewed.”

White added a personal perspective on the matter. White, a former Penns Grove football star, is the first African American executive director in the NJSIAA’s 100-year history.

“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,” White wrote. “I ask that everyone respect the investigatory process related to all parties involved.”

Also Saturday, Atlantic County freeholders Ernest D. Coursey and Ashley Bennet issued a joint statement criticizing “those officials” involved in the incident.

“As Atlantic County Freeholders, we are outraged over recent reports of Andrew Johnson, a Buena High School wrestler forced to cut his deadlocks minutes before a wrestling match in order to compete,” the statement read. “This is wrong on many levels and must not be tolerated. It is inconceivable that those we trust to work with our youth would permit such an inappropriate act to occur.

“Those officials who permitted this intimidating incident to occur while remaining complacent must be held accountable.”

Buena coach George Maxwell and athletic director Dave Albertson have been unavailable for comment.

Efforts to reach Maloney have been unsuccessful, with an officiating colleague of Maloney’s confirming Saturday that the NJSIAA has asked all parties involved in the matter not to comment publicly pending the investigation.

Howie O’Neill, the NJSIAA’s state tournament director and a South Jersey referee for more than 40 years, said Friday that it was his understanding that Maloney had met with both teams prior to Wednesday night’s Cape-Atlantic League match.

O’Neill said that it was standard practice for referees to meet with the coaches and athletes about an hour before the start of a bout, to check athletes’ nails and hair as well as their equipment.

O’Neill said that sometimes the referee will check equipment, such as a cap for a wrestler with longer hair, and other times will just ask the coach, “Is your team properly equipped?”

Veteran wrestling official Ron Roberts, a Buena graduate, said Friday that he visited with Buena’s wrestling team before the start of the season to go over rule changes with the players and coaches.

Roberts said he specifically spoke with Johnson about his dreadlocks and the need to have a cap that conforms to NJSIAA rules.

“I told them very clearly that it had to be a hairpiece that attaches to the headgear,” Roberts said, referring to Johnson as well as Buena coaches.

According to South Jersey News’ Mike Frankel, who shot the video, Maloney did not allow Johnson to take the mat because the wrestler didn’t have the proper equipment to cover his long dreadlocks.

Johnson apparently had a cap but not one that attached to the headgear. As a result, under NJSIAA’s rules, Johnson was given 90 seconds by Maloney to decide whether to forfeit the bout or have his hair cut.

“Alan did everything right,” O’Neill said Friday. “He followed the rules.”

Johnson opted to have his hair cut by a Buena trainer.

Buena superintendent David Cappuccio Jr. on Friday issued a statement saying that no school or district staff member influenced Johnson’s decision to have his dreadlocks cut.

“The student-athlete made the decision to have his hair cut, at that moment, in order to avoid forfeiture of the match,” Cappuccio said.

Johnson won his bout 4-2. Buena won the match, 41-24.

If Johnson had forfeited, Oakcrest would have received six points for the bout. Buena still would have won the team match by a 38-30 score.

Burroughs blamed Maloney but also Buena’s coaches as well as parents in the gymnasium.

“As heroic as it was for Andrew to step up in the midst of what was happening, it shouldn’t have gone that far,” Burroughs wrote. “The parents and coaches of the Buena wrestling team should have intervened . . .

“I’m sure his hair was a strong part of his identity, and no single victory is worth succumbing to the pressure of unjust oppression and unwarranted stripping of that identity.”

Burroughs noted that Johnson appeared subdued, even after his dramatic victory in the 120-pound bout.

“Just watch Andrew’s emotion after the match-clinching takedown,” Burroughs wrote. “He was somber, knowing he had just given up so much for so little.”

Burroughs criticized Maloney for abusing his power. Maloney, who is white, was also embroiled in controversy in 2016 when he allegedly used a racial slur during a gathering of wrestling officials at the “War at the Shore” youth tournament in Wildwood.

“As for the referee Alan Maloney, he needs to be held accountable,” Burroughs wrote. “You’ve been refereeing for far too long not to know better. But more than being reprimanded, I truly hope this event causes you to reflect and make an attempt to truly understand.

“In an occupation that requires so much interaction with young men, your character should reflect your power.”

Staff writer Marie McCullough contributed to this story.