A South Jersey high school wrestler was given two options and had seconds to make a decision in a big conference match against an archrival: Cut your dreadlocks or forfeit the match
The incident has been referred to state officials and the body that governs high school athletics in New Jersey.
The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association has recommended that the white referee at the center of the controversy, Alan Maloney, be sidelined "until this matter has been reviewed more thoroughly.”
Additionally, the NJSIAA has referred the matter to the state Attorney General’s Office for review, said Larry White, executive director for the Robbinsville-based group that oversees high school sports. It will be reviewed by the Division on Civil Rights, he said.
Maloney previously was embroiled in controversy after allegedly using a racial slur at a social gathering in 2016 with sports officials.
On Friday, some referees rallied to his defense, saying the longtime official was merely following rule changes implemented a few years ago. Maloney did not respond to a message left at his home.
As the match was about to start, Maloney advised Johnson that he couldn’t wrestle without a legally sanctioned cover for his dreadlocks, said Howie O’Neill, a member of the Southern Chapter of the New Jersey Wrestling Officials Association. Johnson had 90 seconds to decide what to do, he said.
“Nobody made him cut his hair,” O’Neill said Friday. "It was his choice to cut his dreadlocks.”
Using scissors, an athletic trainer cut several inches from Johnson’s dreadlocks to just above his neckline. Johnson, who is black, appeared emotional in the video. He went on to win his match in overtime, 4-2. Buena defeated Oakcrest, 41-24 in the home clash in the Cape Atlantic League National Conference.
The video quickly went viral on social media Friday with more than five million views and sparked an outcry. The New Jersey Wrestling Officers Association was flooded with inquiries — so many that one official deactivated his cell phone, whose number was posted in an angry tweet about the incident.
“It’s heartbreaking what happened,” said Amol Sinha, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. “He shouldn’t have had to make the choice of cutting his hair or forfeiting the match. This doesn’t seem to be about hair. It seems to be about race.”
State Assemblyman John Armato (D., Atlantic), whose district includes Buena, said Maloney should be immediately banned from officiating scholastic wrestling matches. Armato said he planned to contact Buena school officials.
“This was without a doubt a clear act of racial discrimination," Armato said in a statement. “This is sure to be a traumatic experience that Johnson should have never encountered. I admire that even in the face of discrimination this young athlete refused to let ignorance hold him back from a win."
In a statement, Buena Regional superintendent David Cappuccio Jr. said no school or district staff influenced Johnson’s decision to cut his dreadlocks. The district will take “appropriate action” as more details become available, he said.
“The student-athlete made the decision to have his hair cut, at that moment, in order to avoid a forfeiture of the match,” Cappuccio said.
Wrestling experts questioned why the issue was not resolved earlier, possibly during weigh-in and not in a public shearing on the mat. Wrestlers must meet strict guidelines that govern their physical appearance, including facial hair and hair length, to protect both competitors.
O’Neill said Johnson had a covering, but it did not attach to his headgear, as required under new rules.
Another veteran wrestling official, Ron Roberts, a Buena graduate, said he visited his former high school team before the season to update the coaches and athletes on rule changes. He said that he told two athletes on the team with long dreadlocks that they would need to get the proper hair cover or cut their hair before taking the mat.
One said he planned to cut his hair, and Johnson said he would have the proper equipment, Roberts said.
Roberts said he was “angry” about the incident that happened on Wednesday night.
“It never should have come to this,” Roberts said. “It should have been addressed long before coming to this. You have to take the mat with the proper equipment.”
Details about the episode were slowly unfolding amid questions about why Johnson was not equipped with the proper covering, common among wrestlers with long hair.
Buena wrestling coach George Maxwell and athletic director Dave Albertson did not respond to numerous telephone calls seeking comment.
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, based in Indianapolis.
“If an individual has hair longer than allowed by rule, it may be braided or rolled if it is contained in a cover so that the hair rule is satisfied. The legal hair cover shall be attached to the ear guards,” the guidelines state.
The covering must be made of a solid material, be nonabrasive, and attach to the wrestling ear guards. The wrestler is required to bring the covering for inspection by the referee at weigh-in.
Camden High School wrestling coach Sandy Thame said none of his current wrestlers have long dreadlocks. But he has had some members with dreadlocks in previous seasons. He has three head coverings in stock to meet the new regulations, just in case.
“That’s a hard one,” said Thame, a retired science teacher who has been Camden’s coach since 1976. “I think I might have taken the forfeit. Imagine that kid going home and telling his mom he cut his hair.”
During a tournament last weekend at Southern High School in Manahawkin, Ocean County, Buena wrestling coaches and Johnson complained about the new hair covering, and Johnson was allowed to compete with a version that did not comply with the guidelines, O’Neill said.
“That’s the problem. That was wrong. And because somebody else didn’t do their job, our guy looks like the bad guy,” said O’Neill, an official for more than 40 years. “Alan did everything right. He followed the rules. I would have done exactly the same thing.”
In the 2016 incident, Maloney was accused of using a racial slur during a gathering with wrestling officials at the Shore. He was confronted about the remark by another referee, Preston Hamilton, who threw Maloney to the ground.