A well-known New Jersey high school wrestling referee told a wrestler that if he did not cut off his dreadlocks, he could not compete in a match.
Buena Regional High School wrestler Andrew Johnson, who is African-American, was ordered by referee Alan Maloney, who is white, to cut off his dreadlocks or forfeit an important match. The teen was wearing a head covering over his hair, but Maloney reportedly said if he did not cut off his hair right there and then, he’d lose the match. The teen agreed and a white woman wearing the team jacket is seen chopping his dreadlocks off in a random and haphazard manner in front of a gym full of athletes, coaches, competitors, and spectators. Johnson appears visibly upset.
He wrestled and the match was won. But afterward, it’s apparent in the video that he’s distressed.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. A Tweet Calling Johnson a ‘Team Player’ for Allowing his Hair to be Chopped Off Set Off a Firestorm of Criticism
A south New Jersey news site’s sports editor tweeted out the video calling Johnson the “epitome of a team player.”
“Epitome of a team player ⬇️ A referee wouldn’t allow Andrew Johnson of Buena @brhschiefs to wrestle with a cover over his dreadlocks. It was either an impromptu haircut, or a forfeit. Johnson chose the haircut, then won by sudden victory in OT to help spark Buena to a win,” wrote sports director for South New Jersey Today, Mike Frankel.
And while perhaps some thought it a symbol of teamwork, many others, including fellow referees, see the action as demonstrably racist and unnecessary.
“This is discrimination period. The real honor and solidarity would have been the team forfeiting the match not making him cut his locs. Why all of sudden was his hair a problem and not in any other of his previous matches? I’m disgusted,” wrote one on Twitter.
“This is disgusting. You all watched adults force a child to choose between part of his identity and the sport he loves & praised his acquiescence to that humiliating choice as ‘good sportsmanship.’ Appalling doesn’t even begin to describe this whole situation or your sick praise.”
Frankel responded to comments on his original tweet saying he’s the “furthest thing from a racist.” He also wrote that Buena coaches “argued” over Maloney’s command.
Frankel said Johnson’s coaches “argued the referee’s decision for several minutes until the referee started the injury time clock.” He added that he’s covered local sports for years and has always provided “positive and fair coverage.” But, he says he does see that it was, “Obviously it was naïve of me to run with the ‘consummate team player’ angle. In my mind, it was just the ultimate selfless move from high school athlete. I know now I missed the bigger picture and for that, I apologize.”
Frankel continued: “I understand many of you watch this video and feel strong emotions. I do too. I’d just like to remind you that I didn’t cause the action, I documented the action. And my method of delivery fell short in many ways.”
And Frankel said he’s been threatened.
“I am sorry that you were threatened. That’s horrifying. But the story shouldn’t be about whether you’re racist. It should be that you watched a young kid be shorn like a sheep and completely missed how humiliating that likely was. Be safe. And more observant.”
2. Johnson’s Family Spoke Out & Blamed Maloney As Wrestlers & Other Referees Called Out the Official For His Actions
The attorney for Charles and Rosa Johnson issued a statement saying the family “expressed immense, heartfelt gratitude for the overwhelming show of support for their son. Andrew has been deeply moved by the thunderous outpouring of unsolicited support–including from an Olympic wrestler, leading civil rights advocates, and elected officials–after the shocking pre-match ultimatum,”
Dominic A. Speziali said Maloney’s actions appear “more egregious as additional information comes to light.”
Per rules, Maloney was supposed to “inspect” Johnson pre-match for “appearance and determine any rules violations prior to the start of the meet, typically during weigh-ins.”
And it turns out, Maloney was late and missed weigh-ins and when he finally “did evaluate Andrew, he failed to raise any issues with the length of his hair or the need to wear a head covering.” Later, Maloney is reported to have “informed Nate Johnson, Andrew’s younger brother and teammate, that they would both need to wear a head covering or face disqualification.
“As Andrew took to the mat to start his match, the referee examined and rejected the head covering he was wearing. In prior matches at a tournament the weekend before, Andrew was permitted to wrestle without issue, a fact that his coaches conveyed to the referee when pleading on his behalf. Andrew then requested he be allowed to push his hair back as he did the weekend prior, but the referee again refused because ‘it wasn’t in its natural state,’ referring to the dreadlocks as ‘braids.'”
Speziali continued: “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 unyielding referee gave Andrew 90 seconds to either forfeit his match or cut his hair. 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 is cutting Andrew’s hair in the middle of the gym, the referee is behind them directing her to keep cutting until he was satisfied with the length.”
The Johnson family says that “despite the referee’s outrageous conduct they remain committed to Buena’s wrestling program, the athletic trainer, and his coaches, who have coached him since he was 5-years-old.”
The lawyer said the “…blame here rests primarily with the referee and those that permitted him to continue in that role despite clear evidence of what should be a disqualifying race-related transgression.”
Immediately after the incident, a number of wrestling officials chimed in.
“I’m a wrestling official in PA. A legal hair covering is all that’s required for dreadlocks. I need more info before judging like you all should. There are legitimate reasons for covering dreads when wrestling,” one commented.
“As a former wrestler, I’ve wrestled multiple kids with dreadlocks and the cover they wear provides no advantage to them. The ref has a history of discriminatory behavior and unfairly targeted Andrew. He needs to be fired.”
Philly.com spoke to Howie O’Neill, a member of the Southern Chapter of the New Jersey Wrestling Officials Association, who said Johnson did not have the appropriate head covering.
He was quoted as saying that Johnson “had 90 seconds to decide what to do …Nobody made him cut his hair. It was his choice to cut his dreadlocks.”
3. Maloney Has a History of Racism & Was Sanctioned for Calling a Fellow Ref the N-Word in 2016
At an event for officials, Maloney called a colleague a ni**er. He said he didn’t remember it but later apologized. The African-American ref knocked Maloney down after Maloney poked him in the chest and called him the n-word. Both were initially sanctioned by the ref’s association.
According to a report from New Jersey.com in October of 2016, fellow referee Preston Hamilton, who is black, knocked Maloney to the floor over the racial slur.
In another report, this one from the Courier-Post, Maloney claimed not to recall saying the n-word but “accepted eyewitness accounts that he did.” He told the paper, “You know, people do make mistakes and I apologized. I really don’t think this should go any further than it’s gone anyhow. … The remark was not made to him. After he told me what I said, it was pertaining to us breaking each other’s stones. … I didn’t remember it. I was told it. I believed it and said, ‘Yo, that ain’t me.’ That’s when I called him right away and that’s when he told me we were good.”
Afterward, Hamilton brought the incident to the attention of New Jersey Wrestling Officials Southern Chapter and a hearing was held where Maloney agreed to participate in sensitivity training and an alcohol awareness program, and he and Hamilton were suspended for a year, Maloney for calling Hamilton ni**er and Hamilton for knocking Maloney down. It was reported that after appeals, both suspensions were overturned.
According to his Facebook, Maloney graduated from Edgewood Regional High School, attended Camden County College and lives in Berlin, New Jersey. Maloney has been a New Jersey wrestling ref for 41 years, according to a New Jersey Wrestling Officials Association roster.
4. Many Called For Maloney’s Firing. He’s Barred From Matches Pending the Outcome of Investigations
Now, many are calling for Maloney to be fired including other high school sports referees, activists, parents and New Jersey residents.
“Call 973-214-9566 and ask Mark Sherman that Alan Maloney be fired as a NJ Ref. The treatment of this young man along with the racial slur he made 2 years ago makes him unfit. Shameful. Parents tell me he’s been awful for generations,” activist and journalist Shaun King tweeted.
There’s now a petition on Change.org to have Maloney removed.
“Alan Maloney, who is known for his racial slurs, ordered a black wrestler, Andrew Johnson, cut off his secured and compliant dreadlocks in order to “qualify” to wrestle at a match. The child’s dreadlocks were hastily cut off in front of everyone so that he could go on to participate. The treatment of this young man should never have been allowed, his history of racial slurs and treatment of this young man show that Alan Maloney is unfit to be a fair referee,” the petition reads.
Among the comments on the petition is one by a person who signed calling for Maloney to be ousted.
“This was an assault on Andrew Johnson. Alan Maloney should be fired and subjected to a lawsuit.”
Maloney has not been fired but based on a late Friday afternoon tweet, he will not be refereeing any matches for now.
The New Jersey State Interscholastic Atheltic Association (NJSIAA) issued a statement on Twitter saying Maloney will “not be assigned to any events until this matter has been reviewed more thoroughly in order to avoid potential distractions for the competing wrestlers…”
But many were not having it. People demanded the NJSIAA take immediate action.
“As a former wrestling ref and coach, I am appalled by how the adults in this situation let this young man down. Maloney should never be allowed to ref a match in The Garden State ever again.”
And New Jersey Sports.com, a high school sports network, went further, condemning the NJSIAA for not having Johnson’s back and saying flat out that what was done to him was wrong.
“I want the press release to say that it is not OK for a kid to be shamed like this under any circumstances. Don’t need a roadmap of the appeals process. Better approach: “This is wrong, we will take care of it. We are the governing body of New Jersey High School athletics.”
New Jersey.com reported the school district’s superintendent said the district asked that Maloney not ref any of its matches.
5. Andrew Johnson is an Accomplished High School Wrestler Competing, With his Dreadlocks, Since 2016. Athletic Rules Call For Hair to be Covered Only
According to New Jersy.com’s high school sports athlete profile, Johnson has been a wrestler at Buena Regional High School since 2016 with 13 wins and six pins.
The school’s website is sparse and little is shared about the staff of the wrestling team for the Buena Chiefs so the woman in the school’s jacket chopping off Johnson’s hair has not yet been identified. The team coach is George Maxwell. Heavy has emailed him for comment.
This is an Instagram post of Maxwell with the team from 2015.
On the school’s Facebook page, commenter Larry Headon posted the following ‘review:’
“…you allow racist refs and coaches to engage in pretty much a racist ritual. It’s a modern-day scalping. There IS NO RULE AGAINST HAVING DREADLOCKS. Yet your entire auditorium and coaching staff allowed hair to be cut . This is despicable. The rules state in the interpretation that as long as the hair is contained in the legal head-gear, that it’s legal. Nobody cuts curly-haired blondes when they wrestle. But you will cut dreadlocks. RACIST. You’ve failed your kids here.”
The National Federation of State High School Associations’ interpretation of wrestling rules for 2018-2019 says, for example in the case of braided hair, which are similar to dreads, the hair just needs to be “contained” in a hair cover. Johnson’s hair was contained in a hair cover but Maloney said he had to cut them off or lose the match.
The NJSIAA said it was looking into the incident, is in contact with school officials and is waiting for an official incident report. Meanwhile, the association says it also requested information from Maloney and, “has provided initial information to the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights.”
Some suggested that a number of Johnson’s civil rights were violated.
“3 things here: 1) racially motivated civil rights violation 2) violation of Andrew’s 1st Amendment rights
3) corporal punishment, which is illegal in NJ As a public school teacher, I am certain all 3 are grounds for legal action. I’d be fired & sued if I did that to a student.”
The New Jersey Attorney General’s Division on Civil Rights has opened an investigation into the matter, New Jersey.com reported.
The NJSIAA says it’s “working to determine the exact nature of the incident and whether an infraction occurred.” And, added that Maloney will “not be assigned to any events until this matter has been reviewed more thoroughly in order to avoid potential distractions for the competing wrestlers…”
This is a developing story.