I have been a certified basketball referee in New Jersey for seven years, and I was a girls' lacrosse ref for four. I know the cliché is that no one loves the ref, but I try to make it a different experience for the kids. I try to catch their names so I can personalize it when helping them understand rules. I tell a joke to parents in the stands before the opening jump, and a similar one to the kids before I throw the ball up.
Most important, though, before the game there is a mandatory meeting with coaches, where I say, as the state of New Jersey demands, “Are your players properly equipped?” When we next meet with the captains, often we have to make sure they are with the coaches on this. I have told innumerable kids to take off certain wristbands (medical ones are allowed), all earrings, headbands ,and undershirts that don’t match school colors, and a half-dozen other things.
That is why I was stumped when a furor, with charges of racism, happened after a reporter taped an incident at a wrestling match at Oakcrest High last week. The video shows Buena High wrestler Andrew Johnson getting his dreadlocks shortened before a match. As per the stories, referee Alan Maloney said, with Johnson approaching the mat, that he had to cut his hair to a proper length or else forfeit.
The furor didn’t stay at Oakcrest, but became national talk, with even local Olympic wrestling legend Jordan Burroughs condemning the situation and others calling it racism, since the wrestler is black and the referee is not only white, but had been censured for a racist remark to another ref, not during a match, in 2016.
The problem with the situation is that there are strict safety and uniform rules for each youth sport, and the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association goes to great lengths to teach everyone about them. Referees have to take concussion courses every year, and refs and coaches go to mandatory meetings for new rules, with a refresher on safety particularly.
In Johnson’s case, a referee who is a Buena graduate says that he went to the school before the season to explain these rules, and specifically told Johnson to get the proper equipment — namely a cap that attached to his headgear — to cover his dreadlocks. I believe him. In a previous match, though, Johnson did not have the proper headgear, but the referee let him wrestle anyway. That referee was wrong. Suppose, as often happens in wrestling, Johnson had gotten in some kind of headlock and his opponent, perhaps innocently, grabbed his long hair and cracked his head back, injuring him severely.
I don’t know whether referee Maloney gave the proper equipment warnings to the coaches, but even if not, Johnson and the whole Buena team already knew what was proper and what was not. That Maloney only gave Johnson 90 seconds to make up his mind between a haircut and forfeit is just part of the story. Johnson eschewed the other option, to have the right headgear.
When my daughter played middle-school basketball, a teammate came bouncing in for a game, showing off her new earrings in her just-pierced ears. During warm-ups, the referee came up and said she had to take out her earrings for safety during the game. Tears welled up, because just-pierced ears need earrings in for the piercing to take hold. Her dad shrugged, but the girl was a jock. Tears and earrings left, and into the game she went.
I would have hoped that Johnson and his parents understood that the rule is made for safety, and enforced for all wrestlers, many of whom, as teenage style goes, have longer-than-average hair.
The video, well, that is what we all have to deal with now. Out of context, this one created a national furor.
In his match, Johnson won, helping Buena beat Oakcrest. I wish him well as the season progresses, with him hopefully wearing safer headgear.
Robert Strauss is a former reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News.