Family: Black NJ Wrestler Was Made to Cut His Hair ‘Under Duress’
BUENA — The family of a black Buena Regional High School wrestler who was made to cut his dreadlocks on the spot or forfeit a match last Wednesday said he chose the former "under duress" in a statement released to media Monday.
The statement, released through attorney Dominic A. Speziali, is the first word from Andrew Johnson's family after the incident, caught on video by SNJ Today, garnered national attention and accusations of racism. Olympic gold medalist Jordan Burroughs, a New Jersey Native, and Gov. Phil Murphy, have been among those to criticize the ultimatum.
Among the details fueling the criticism: Referee Alan Maloney, who is white, had previously been accused of using the N-word during a gathering of wrestling officials. Maloney said he didn't remember using the term, but believes accounts of others who said he'd done so, according to the Courier-Post.
Also Monday: The Office of the Attorney General clarified its reasons for launching an investigation in to the hair-cutting incident via the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights. — a move that put the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association's previously announced investigation aside.
In 2013, the Division on Civil Rights and the NJSIAA entered into an agreement to address incidents of potential bias in high school sports, the AG's office said. Typically, the NJSIAA will investigate incidents involving players, coaches, and fans, with notice given to the state, and the civil rights division only takes over if the matter "is not properly investigated or remedied," the AG's office said in an emailed statement.
But because the hair-cutting incident involved a referee — an NJSIAA official — the division will handle this matter, it said.
In the prepared statement, released to the Courier-Post and other publications, Johnson's family said he had been "deeply moved by the thunderous outpouring of unsolicited support — including from an Olympic wrestler, leading civil rights advocates and elected officials — after the pre-match ultimatum."
According to rules set forth by the National Federation of State High School Associations and adopted by the NJSIAA a wrestler's hair "shall not extend below the top of an ordinary shirt collar in the back; and on the sides. The hair shall not extend below earlobe level in the front." Hair is allowed to be braided or rolled in a cover, but the hair cover needs to be attached to the head gear, according to the rule.
Philly.com reported that according to Howie O’Neill, a member of the Southern Chapter of the New Jersey Wrestling Officials Association, a cover Johnson used didn't attach to his headgear as required.
The website also reported that Johnson has been allowed to wrestle with the cover in previous matches this season.
The family's statement took issue with the timing of referee Maloney's decision.
"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 said. "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."
Ron Roberts, a veteran referee and Buena graduate, told Philly.com he had visited his alma mater before the season to update it on rule changes. Roberts told the website he had advised two athletes on the team that they would need to get the proper cover or cut their hair before the season started.
"It never should have come to this," Roberts told the website. "It should have been addressed long before coming to this. You have to take the mat with the proper equipment."
An investigation by the Division of Civil Rights is not a criminal inquiry, but rather an investigation into whether there was a violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.
A statement from NJSIAA Executive Director Larry White on Saturday first acknowledged the state investigation. That statement also confirmed Maloney will not be assigned to officiate another match "until this matter has been thoroughly reviewed." White said the step was being taken "to avoid disruption of events for student athletes."
White said that "as an African-American and parent — as well as a former educator, coach, official and athlete — I clearly understand the issues at play, and probably better than most."
"The NJSIAA takes this matter very seriously, and I ask that everyone respect the investigatory process related to all parties involved," White said.
White said the NJSIAA will be working with the state and "providing all requested information."
Former Morris County Prosecutor Robert Bianchi says investigators will likely be looking at several factors during the investigation. He said they will likely look into Maloney's history as a referee, including how he has approached similar situations with black athletes and others.