A white New Jersey high school wrestling referee with a history of racist commentary told a 16-year-old black wrestler that if he did not cut off his dreadlocks, he’d lose the match. A gym-full of teammates, coaches, competitors, and spectators were all zeroed in on the boy who had 90 seconds to decide what to do. He agreed rather than see his team lose. A white female Buena Regional High School wrestling team staffer used large shears and chopped away at the clearly upset athletes’ dreadlocks.
High school wrestler Andrew Johnson was ordered by referee longtime ref Alan Maloney to either have his dreadlocks cut off or forfeit the match for the team. Johnson was wearing a head covering but it would not do Maloney said. His hair was roughly and haphazardly shorn before hundreds in the gym and recorded on video. Johnson wrestled and the match was won. But afterward, even as Maloney grabs his arm in the air to show he’d won, Johnson is visibly distressed.
Maloney won’t be officiating any matches, for now, pending “reviews” by state high school athletic officials and the attorney general’s division of civil rights. But that is little solace for many.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Johnson’s Family Spoke Out
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.”
2. There’s Widespread Support for Johnson Including From Olympic Wrestler Jordan Burroughs & Professional Wrestlers Offering to Train Him
Olympic winner and world champion wrestler Jordan Burroughs took to Twitter to share his thoughts on the shocking incident and sent a direct and personal message to Johnson and his family, saying first, he commends Johnson for “stepping up, and being selfless, cutting his hair and getting the final takedown in overtime to win his match and help his team secure the dual victory.”
But quickly adds, “Now, let me tell you how sickening this is…”
“I’ve been wrestling for 25 years, at every level, and I have never once seen a person required to cut their hair during a match. This is nonsense. As a referee, you are required to check the hair and nails of all wrestlers BEFORE a match. My opinion is that this was a combination of an abuse of power, racism, and just plain negligence.”
“As heroic as it was for Andrew to step up in the midst of what was happening, it shouldn’t have got that far. The parents and coaches of the Buena wrestling team should have intervened. This young man should have been protected in this moment. I’m sure his hair was a strong part of his identity, and no single victory is worth succumbing to the pressure of unjust oppression and the unwarranted stripping of that identity. Just watch Andrew’s emotion after the match-clinching takedown –he was somber, knowing that he had just given up so much for so little.”
“Sometimes taking a stand for something doesn’t actually mean standing, but walking away from it. As for the referee Alan Maloney, he needs to be held accountable. You’ve been refereeing for far too long to not know better. But more than being reprimanded, I truly hope this event causes you to reflect and make an attempt to truly understand. In an occupation that requires so much interaction with young men, your character should reflect your power. Andrew — I am wishing the best for you and your family. I’m so sorry you had to go through this.”
Burroughs also addressed Johnson on Instagram. He told Johnson, “But don’t lose hope. Trials like this undoubtedly spark change, and I have no doubt your character will shine through. ~JB”
And, a report from TMZ has an angered UFC star Aljamain Sterling saying “We’re not gonna stand for no shit like this.” But it’s reported he’s offered to perhaps train Johnson, maybe with fellow “UFC stars like Al Iaquinta and Chris Weidman with the Serra-Longo fight team in Long Island, NY — not too far from Johnson’s high school in New Jersey. Sterling says he’s already reaching out to Johnson to figure out a way to train together — and hopes he can help the kid grow from this experience … through some friendly combat,” TMZ reported.
3. Many Are in Johnson’s Corner & a Petition to Have Maloney Fired Has Taken Off. But There’s Also Support for the Embattled Ref
“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.”
More than 5,000 have signed a Change.org petition to see that happen.
“I am outraged!!! Every single adult in that gym failed this kid. This ref needs to be let go,” one commented.
Many people who are reacting on social media say “all the adults,” including his coaches as well as the school district has failed Johnson.
On a tweet promoting a scavenger hunt at the school with no other reference to the event whatsoever on its website or any social accounts like Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, save a share of the district superintendent’s statement, hundreds decided to address the omission on that tweet in the comment section.
“Can you skip the scavenger hunt updates and update us on how you plan on handling the wrestling situation in which a student was publicly discriminated against and no one from the school said a word about it?”
Before every match, under the rules New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA), refs must read this “bias statement” about discrimination addressing coaches and players. It does not refer to the refs themselves, although presumably officials would be held to the same standards.
“There will be no tolerance for negative statements or actions between players and coaches. This includes taunting, baiting, berating opponents, “trash-talking” or actions which ridicule or cause embarrassment to them. Any verbal, written, or physical conduct related to race, gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation or religion shall not be tolerated, and could subject the violator to ejection, and may result in penalties being assessed against your team. If such comments are heard, a penalty will be assessed immediately.”
But there’s support for Maloney.
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.”
4. An IG Named ‘Andrew Johnson Fight’ Has Half a Million Followers. People Are Reaching Out Using the Hashtag #DrewFam & Celebrities & Influencers Are Reacting
Search Andrew Johnson on social you’ll tens of thousands of tagged posts and videos calling out the actions of the ref and commending the dignity of Johnson who endured the shame on the mat. People are furious. Celebs have raised awareness by re-posting. Professional athletes have weighed in. Millions have seen the video around the world.
On Instagram, there are some 4,000 posts tagged for the wrestler with most sharing the video and their anger.
There is any number of hashtags trending that relate to this story: and #FireAlanMaloney, #AndrewJohnson, and #DrewFam among them.
Jamilah Lemieux, well-known, New York-based writer and culture critic, said she supported Johnson because “all the adults failed him.”
Like Amanda Seales, comedian, and actor, who tweeted “Send a supporting word of love to Andrew Johnson. The humiliation/dehumanization of having his locs cut off should not have happened. #drewfam”
Influential and globally lauded filmmaker Ava DuVernay, said she was “wrecked” by what happened to Johnson.
“I don’t just wear locs. They are a part of me. A gift to me. They mean something to me. So to watch this young man’s ordeal wrecked me. The criminalization of what grows from him. The theft of what was his. Two hours of calls w/ officials yesterday. Two hours of heartache.”
Bronx-based hip-hop artist, actor, and activist Mysonne Linen had plenty to say. And so did his fans.
5. The Buena Regional Schools Superintendent Issued a Statement ‘Facts.’ Many Have Commented That it Fell Short & Lacked Support for Student-Athlete Johnson
There is no shortage of outrage over the statement issued by Buena Regional School District Superintendent David C. Cappuccio, Jr.
“Is this a joke…So does that make it better..So the SCHOOL or the COACHES or not going to take any of the blame…I call BS.The COACH should have stood up and defended his STUDENT. But he didn’t because the WIN was more IMPORTANT then his STUDENT and the STUDENT DIGNITY…TRY AGAIN?Because we not buying that BS”
“His DIGNITY, Cappuccio! You publicly humiliated a child and didn’t even notice. You must go.”