N.J. wrestler’s attorney suggests impromptu haircut was due to ref’s tardiness
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — An attorney representing the parents of Buena Regional High School wrestler Andrew Johnson released a statement Monday suggesting that Johnson’s impromptu hair cut was due in part to referee Alan Maloney’s tardiness.
Johnson, a junior, opted to have his dreadlocks cut off by Buena’s athletic trainer just before his 120-pound bout against Oakcrest last Wednesday rather than forfeit his match for not having the proper hair covering. The incident has caused national headlines and debate.
In most cases, such incidents are resolved hours before a meet.
However, parents Rosa and Charles Johnson said Maloney did not attend the weigh-in, according to the statement issued by family attorney Dominic Speziali, of Philadelphia on Monday.
Maloney did not return a request for comment.
“The scholastic wrestling rules clearly state that referees are to inspect wrestlers appearance and determine any rules violations prior to the start of the meet, typically during weigh-ins,” the statement reads in part. “The referee here was late to the meet and missed weigh-ins. When he did evaluate Andrew, he failed to raise any issues with the length of his hair or the need to wear a head covering.”
According to the rules of the National Federation of State High School Associations, a wrestler’s hair “shall extend no lower than the top of an ordinary shirt collar in the back, shall not extend no lower than earlobe level on the sides, and shall not extend below the eyebrows in the front.
“Hair that does not conform to the rule shall be contained in a legal hair covering or the wrestler shall not compete. For hair coverings to be legal they must be worn under the headgear, or be part of the headgear, and be of a solid material that is not abrasive. ... Bandannas, or “do rags,” are also not legal headwear.”
The rule was changed a few years ago requiring the hair coverings to be attached to the headgear.
“As Andrew took to the mat to start his match, the referee examined and rejected the head covering he was wearing,” the lawyer’s statement read. “In prior matches at a tournament the weekend before (the Steven Leff Tournament at Southern Regional), 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.’”
Maloney, who has been a high school wrestling official for more than 40 years, told Buena coach George Maxwell just before Andrew Johnson’s match was to begin that he would either have to get a haircut or forfeit the bout. He then started the injury clock.
Maxwell reportedly argued to no avail.
Johnson opted to have athletic trainer Denise Fields give him a haircut in front of fans at Buena’s gym.
“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,” Speziali said in the statement.
Johnson wound up winning a 4-2 decision in sudden overtime to help the Chiefs win the meet. Fans, including his parents, gave him a standing ovation as he left the mat and was surrounded by his teammates.
“Andrew was visibly shaken after he and his coaches made every effort to satisfy the referee short of having his hair cut,” the statement read. “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.”
A video of the incident, taken by SNJ Today Sports Director Mike Frankel, sparked national outrage. A number of athletes, celebrities, civil rights advocates and politicians, including Olympic champion wrestler Jordan Burroughs, Chance the Rapper, American film director Ava DuVernay and New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy expressed their anger and frustration.
The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association announced Saturday that state authorities are investigating the incident through the Division on Civil Rights. Maloney will not be assigned to any matches until the matter has been reviewed.
“As this matter is further investigated, the family wants to be clear that they are supportive of Andrew’s coaches and the team’s athletic trainer,” Speziali 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.”
The Buena Regional Board of Education announced it will hold a special emergency meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday to discuss personnel matters. The notice said the board will open the meeting and may proceed immediately into executive session. It was not known if the meeting is in connection with this incident.
The Buena Regional wrestling team is scheduled to compete at the Hunterdon Central Tournament on Thursday.