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South Jersey wrestler was under ‘duress’ when he agreed to have dreadlocks cut, lawyer says

Andrew Johnson, the South Jersey wrestler forced to cut his dreadlocks in order to compete, asked to push his hair back but the referee refused because “it wasn’t in its natural state” and referred to the dreadlocks as braids, his attorney said Monday.

The Johnson family (from left): Matt, Rosa, Andrew, Nate, Cami, and Charles. Photo courtesy of the Johnson Family.
The Johnson family (from left): Matt, Rosa, Andrew, Nate, Cami, and Charles. Photo courtesy of the Johnson Family.Read moreCourtesy of Johnson family (custom credit)

A referee who refused to let a South Jersey wrestler compete until his dreadlocks were cut had arrived late for the match and raised no concerns about the grappler’s hair until moments before the bout, the student’s lawyer said Monday.

And in their first public comments about the episode involving Andrew Johnson during a match at Buena Regional High School in Atlantic County last week, his parents, Charles and Rosa Johnson, expressed appreciation for an outpouring of support for their son.

Their lawyer, Dominic A. Speziali, of Philadelphia, called the episode “outrageous” and said the family is awaiting the outcome of an investigation by the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights. He said the conduct by referee Alan Maloney “appears more egregious as additional information comes to light.”

A video of Johnson’s dreadlocks being shorn in public by a school trainer before his overtime victory last Wednesday in a bout against Oakcrest High School went viral, creating an uproar on social media and leading to a state review. Maloney has been suspended from officiating pending the outcome.

Maloney arrived late for the meet and missed the weigh-in, when officials typically inspect wrestlers to determine whether the physical appearance, such as hair length and skin condition, meet regulations, Speziali said. When the referee eventually evaluated Johnson, he did not raise any concerns about the length of Johnson’s hair or say that he needed to wear a hair covering, the lawyer said.

Johnson and his younger brother, Nate, also a teammate, were later told that both would need to wear a hair covering or they would be disqualified, Speziali said. Nate lost his match, 6-1. It was not known whether his hair was cut also.

Howie O’Neill, the the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association’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 before Wednesday night’s Cape-Atlantic League match.

It is 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, he said. Sometimes, that inspection may be conducted by a junior varsity official, referees say. Ron Roberts, who also officiates high school wrestling matches, said he reviewed the rules changes adopted by the NJSIAA several years ago with Buena’s wrestling team and coaches before the start of the season.

Speziali said that when Andrew Johnson took to the mat, Maloney rejected his head covering, which met the state’s previous, outdated standards. Johnson had been allowed to wear the same covering in a tournament the previous weekend, and his coaches pleaded on his behalf with Maloney to permit him to compete. The referee denied Johnson’s request to push his hair back with the covering because “it wasn’t in its natural state" and referred to the dreadlocks as “braids," the lawyer said.

“Andrew was visibly shaken after he and his coaches made every effort to satisfy the referee short of having his hair cut. But, as captured on video, the referee gave Andrew 90 seconds to either forfeit his match or cut his hair," Speziali said in a statement issued on behalf of the family. "Under duress but without any influence from the coaching staff or the athletic trainer, Andrew decided to have his hair cut rather than forfeit the match.”

As the trainer cut Andrew’s hair, the referee stood behind them “directing her to keep cutting until he was satisfied with the length,” Speziali said. The trainer could be seen on the video using scissors to cut several inches from Johnson’s locks.

Maloney, a veteran wrestling official, has not responded to numerous requests seeking comment. Other referees have defended his actions, saying that Maloney was simply enforcing rules and that Johnson should have been equipped with the proper head covering.

Buena wrestling coach George Maxwell and athletic director Dave Albertson have not responded to calls seeking comment.

There has been a groundswell of support for Johnson from elected officials, including Gov. Phil Murphy, and athletes, including former Olympic wrestling champion Jordan Burroughs, who criticized Johnson’s coaches and parents of other team members for failing to intervene and stop Johnson from getting a hair cut.

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, a covering must be worn if the wrestler’s hair extends past the earlobe. The covering must be attached to the ear guards.

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

Maloney, who is white, previously was involved in another controversy after allegedly using a racial slur at a social gathering with sports officials in 2016. He later apologized and was ordered to attend sensitivity training. Johnson is black and some critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have called the covering-cutting episode racist.

The Johnsons, in the statement, said Andrew, who has been wrestling since he was 5 years old, remains committed to the Buena wrestling program. They also expressed support for the school’s coaches and the athletic trainer. The family asked for privacy.

Andrew Johnson won his 120-pound bout 4-2 in overtime. Buena won the match, 41-24.

“Wrestling has taught Andrew to be resilient in the face of adversity,” his family said. “We will do all that we can to make sure that no student-athlete is forced to endure what Andrew experienced.”