Ref who made wrestler cut dreadlocks to compete suspended 2 years after state investigation

The referee who forced a 16-year-old wrestler to cut his dreadlocks in order to compete is banned for two seasons. (Getty Images)

The referee who forced a high school wrestler to cut his dreadlocks in order to compete last winter has been suspended for two years as the result of an investigation by New Jersey’s Division on Civil Rights.

Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal made the agreement announcement with the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) on Wednesday. The department also mandated implicit bias training for high school athletics staff and officials as well as issuing a new “Guidance on Race Discrimination Based on Hairstyle.”

Grewal said in a statement:

“Student athletes should be able to compete with each other on a level playing field. Racial discrimination in the enforcement of the rules of any sport is inconsistent with the spirit of fair play. The Division on Civil Rights’ action today makes it less likely that any student athlete will have to endure discrimination that not only undermines fair competition but also violates our state laws.”

The state launched an investigation after Andrew Johnson, who identifies as mixed race and was then 16, was forced by Alan Maloney, a white referee, to cut his dreadlocks in order to continue his match. The incident occurred at Buena Regional High School on Dec. 19, 2018, and soon went viral.

Maloney cited a National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) rule that determines allowable hair length and at what point a wrestler must wear a hair cover to compete. He reportedly told Johnson, who had competed with dreadlocks before, that he needed a hair cover.

His team and coaches first protested the decision. They then couldn’t find a cover that met regulations since Maloney determined the one Johnson typically wore was not allowed. When the referees started running the injury time clock, Johnson agreed to have his dreadlocks cut by a team trainer. He was visibly upset in video shot by local TV reporters.

The team boycotted matches with Mahoney. Further fueling the issues was that Maloney had previously been suspended by the NJSIAA for using a racial slur in an argument over homemade wine.

According to the Division on Civil Rights, the rule he cited was interpreted by officials to “require hair covering for several traditionally black hairstyles regardless of hair length.” The agreement clears up the interpretation, emphasizing it is about length and not style.

“In particular, they seek to eliminate any interpretation of Rule 4.2.1 that allowed wrestling officials to determine that traditionally Black hairstyles were ‘unnatural’ or to subject wrestlers with traditionally Black hairstyles to differential treatment as to when a haircover was required.”

Per the agreement, all local rules interpreters and wrestling officials will have in-person training on the rule, the correct interpretation and the history of discrimination based on hair style. All athletics personnel in New Jersey high schools will receive implicit bias training by the end of the school year, per the agreement.

The civil rights department noted in the announcement that treating anyone differently based on hairstyle may violate anti-discrimination laws.

The department interviewed Johnson, Maloney, the NJSIAA rules interpreter, NJSIAA officials, members of the state wrestling association and NFHS rules interpreter to determine the outcome of the investigation.

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