It appears there’s been another case of racism being disguised as concern over our cultural hair choices interfering with our performance, professionalism and the safety of others. Wrestler Andrew Johnson of New Jersey’s Buena Vista high school was forced to cut his dreadlocks shortly before a match this past Thursday. VICE Sports reports Alan Maloney, a referee with a racist past, refused to let Johnson wear a haircap to cover his hair as state rules allow players with long hair to do. Instead, he demanded that the teen cut his hair or forfeit the match. Saving his energy for the match, the teen agrees to cut his hair and a trainer then proceeds to take a pair of scissor’s to Johnson’s head for an impromptu haircut.
In a video posted to social media by South Jersey News’ Mike Frankel, the teen can be seen surrounded by a number of white people, both teammates and staff as his locks are carelessly cut in an effort for him to quickly get his head in the game. While the post is labeled “Epitome Of A Player” many agreed that it is more like the epitome of degradation, abuse of power and straight up racism.
Furthermore, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) rules state “an assigned official will check each wrestler for proper hair grooming, facial hair and fingernail length” for safety on the mat. According to the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association’s rule book, wrestlers’ hair must not fall below the back of a shirt collar, the earlobes or eye brows. But these rules also specify that players are allowed to use a legal hair cover, an option that Maloney did not give to Johnson. When the story immediately trended on social media, other alarming incidents from Maloney’s past were referenced such as an alleged racial slur he used in 2016 when he was attending a party with other league officials. Maloney used the slur in a comment about homemade wine and an altercation occurred when another official slammed him to the ground in response to the slur. Both were nearly suspended for the incident but since it didn’t occur during work hours, nothing much came of it. At the time, the referee told NJ.com the “slip-up” was basically just the result of another day practicing routine racism which was solved with an apology:
“It was two men, a group of guys, having fun and it was just a slip-up. If you can’t see past that, then I don’t know what to say. I made a mistake and I apologized for it. And it was accepted.”
The New York Times reports that the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association which oversees high school sports made a statement that it would review the matter and provided information to the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights. In the meantime, it advised the New Jersey Wrestling Officials Association that Maloney should be stripped of his officiating duties until an investigation had been completed in order to “avoid potential distractions for the competing wrestlers.” In a statement released on Friday afternoon, the Buena Regional School District shared it was in agreement with the advisory and shared that Maloney would not be “no longer be permitted to officiate any contests” involving Buena Vista students.
But hindsight is 20/20 and the unfortunate truth is that Johnson will never be able to relive that moment or regain the life he had before his hairstyle was ruled as a violation to the sport and became a national headline. Much like the controversy over Serena Williams’ “catsuit” on the tennis court, this is just another example of how we are repeatedly forced to sacrifice our identities, styles, culture to fit in and “fly right”. So often in my own work as an educator I witness teens who are encouraged to stay out of trouble by participating in after-school activities and sports, but all too often they are made to feel like outsiders and deviants in spaces that are supposed to be safe.
Johnson won the match for Buena Vista in an overtime victory despite a demand that at the very least placed him in an awkward situation. No matter how many times we are told our hairstyles are unprofessional or a threat to other people’s safety (and narrow outlooks), we always find a way to stay focused on our goals, something we shouldn’t have to keep struggling and finding the strength to rise above discrimination to do.