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Referee in Buena wrestler dreadlocks controversy alleges ‘emotional distress’ and character defamation

South Jersey referee Alan Maloney was embroiled in controversy after wrestler Andrew Johnson had his dreadlocks cut to avoid forfeiture in a match that Maloney was officiating.

In this image taken from a video, Buena Regional High School wrestler Andrew Johnson gets his hair cut courtside minutes before a match.
In this image taken from a video, Buena Regional High School wrestler Andrew Johnson gets his hair cut courtside minutes before a match.Read moreMichael Frankel / SNJTODAY.COM via AP, File

New Jersey referee Alan Maloney, sidelined after making a Buena Regional High School wrestler choose between having his dreadlocks cut or forfeiting a match, has taken the first step toward filing a lawsuit alleging defamation of character and emotional distress.

In a notice of tort claim sent to 12 possible defendants this month, Maloney alleges he has suffered $100,000 in damages. The possible suit comes amid two pending investigations into a Dec. 19, 2018, match that Maloney was officiating in Atlantic County. It sparked controversy after wrestler Andrew Johnson decided to have his hair cut after the veteran referee told the teen he could not compete without a hair covering.

In his claim notice, which includes the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, which governs scholastic sports, and Buena School District officials and coaches, Maloney defended his actions during the match between Johnson and an opponent from Oakcrest High School in Mays Landing.

David Cappuccio, superintendent of the Buena School District, declined to comment.

The notice, dated March 6 and received by officials last week, says Maloney has not been scheduled to officiate since December. A referee gets about $84 to officiate a varsity match.

Immediately after the December incident, Buena officials said Maloney would no longer referee any meets involving its athletes, and the athletic association barred him from officiating any meets pending the outcome of the investigations by the agency and the state Division of Civil Rights.

“I think he’s just covering his bases,” said Dominic Speziali, a Philadelphia lawyer who represents Johnson and his family. “To the extent that he plans to file a claim as a victim in this incident is outright absurd.”

A video of the hair cutting was posted online. It shows a distressed Johnson standing on the mat as a Buena trainer uses scissors to cut several inches of hair. The video went viral, and the incident soon prompted charges of racism and holding a cultural bias against Johnson and other black scholastic athletes. It was referred to the state Attorney General’s Office for review to determine whether Maloney, who is white, acted appropriately.

Maloney said Johnson violated the athletic association’s rules governing hair and did not have a legally sanctioned hair covering. Maloney said the proper time — 90 seconds — was given for Johnson to correct the problem.

“Mr. Maloney properly performed his duties as the referee and fairly applied the rules governing a wrestling match,” Maloney wrote in the notice, obtained by The Inquirer, that he filed on his own behalf. His attorney, Ralph Paolone, also a wrestling coach at Holy Spirit High school in Absecon, did not respond to telephone and email messages to his office Monday.

The comments in Maloney’s notice are his first public remarks about the incident. He did not respond to messages left Monday at his home. A person who answered the phone at his business, Auto Radiator Service in West Berlin, declined to comment. Other referees have said Maloney was simply enforcing rules.

Speziali has maintained that Johnson’s hair length fell within regulations and that Johnson was singled out. Maloney said Johnson needed a covering not because of the length but because his hair “wasn’t in its natural state” and referred to the dreadlocks as “braids,” the lawyer has said.

Maloney’s fate remains up in the air pending the probes by the Division on Civil Rights and the NJSIAA. Speziali and other critics have questioned why the investigations have not been completed nearly three months after the incident. Civil rights activists have called for a revocation of Maloney’s referee license.

Michael Cherenson, a spokesperson for the athletic association, said the group convened an investigative panel last month, led by its executive director and president. Officials delayed the investigation until the wrestling season ended to avoid disrupting the season. he said.

“The panel’s investigation has been active and is ongoing, with additional interviews planned in coming weeks,” Cherenson said in a statement. A spokesperson for the state civil rights agency declined to comment.

For weeks, Buena, which enrolls students from four communities, has been thrust under an international spotlight. Public figures and celebrities, including Gov. Phil Murphy and the film director Ava DuVernay, weighed in, as did people from around the country, who flooded the district with emails and telephone calls.

Maloney previously was embroiled in controversy after allegedly using the N-word at a social gathering in 2016 with wrestling officials. He was thrown to the ground by a black referee. Maloney apologized and was ordered to attend sensitivity training.

Johnson, a junior, tried to keep a low profile during the controversy. He resumed competing Jan. 11, without further incident. He finished the season with 19 wins and advanced to the Region 8 tournament. Through their family attorney, Johnson and his family have declined interview requests.

Staff writer Phil Anastasia contributed to this article.