Heading into Buena Regional High School wrestler Andrew Johnson’s 120-pound match against Oakcrest High, he was given an ultimatum: cut your hair or lose the match. Not only did Johnson, who is black, have to cut his dreadlocks in order to compete, but the white referee who forced him to do so has a history of racist behavior.
Despite having a hair cover for his dreadlocks in accordance with New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association standards, wrestling referee Alan Maloney still forced Johnson to cut his hair right on the mat in front of a packed gym, and the fallout from this moment spread like wildfire after Wednesday night.
The video of Johnson’s impromptu haircut was captured by SNJ Today’s Mike Frankel. Even the reporter’s take by calling Johnson the “epitome of a team player” sparked massive backlash, as many believe Johnson was the target of racism on the part of Alan Maloney.
Despite being visibly upset, Johnson would go on to win the match and help Buena Regional win the meet, but what happened afterwards was only the beginning.
Many high school wrestling officials took to social media to point out that not only is wrestling with dreadlocks very common, but Johnson’s hair was also the appropriate length to start with. The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) states that hair in its natural state cannot be longer than one’s eyebrows in the front, earlobes on the sides, and longer than where a collared shirt would sit in the back, or else it needs to covered.
By all accounts, Johnson was in accordance with all these rules, yet many referees are still unsure of the violation Maloney was trying to enforce.
Back in 2016, during a disagreement between, of all things, homemade wine, Alan Maloney poked his finger into the chest of fellow referee Preston Hamilton, who is African American, and called him a racial slur. Hamilton slammed Maloney to the ground, where the confrontation abruptly ended.
According to the Courier Post, Maloney underwent sensitivity training and an alcohol awareness program after stating that he had no recollection of saying what he did. Hamilton was also given a suspension for “a physical assault.”
After a lengthy appeals process, the New Jersey Wrestling Officials Association decided they had no jurisdiction to suspend the men because the incident occurred at a private event. Both suspensions were overturned, but Maloney’s credibility was already blemished across New Jersey.
After what happened to Andrew Johnson, many called for Maloney to be fired immediately.
Former wrestlers all over the country stepped up to defend Andrew Johnson of Buena High School, and this figures to only cast a wider net onto the questionable past behavior of Alan Maloney.
UPDATE: After an extensive investigation by New Jersey state Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal and the Division on Civil Rights, Alan Maloney was suspended for two full wrestling seasons. Also, the DCR created a new “Guidance on Race Discrimination Based on Hairstyle” to educate NJSIAA officials on the state’s anti-discrimination laws.
“We are confident that those changes, together with the training programs NJSIAA will be developing in collaboration with DCR, will ensure that a situation like this does not happen in the future.
“The NJSIAA’s mission includes fostering a safe and healthy playing environment for student-athletes, providing training for school administrators, coaches and officials, and making sure that rules promote fair play. Today’s Joint Agreement helps advance each of those goals.”
— Statement from NJSIAA Executive Director Larry White, via Courier Post
This article was originally published December 21, 2018.