Johnson wore thick, dark brown dreadlocks to a meet on Wednesday against rival Oakcrest, a top wrestling program in southern New Jersey. But before the 120-pound bout could begin, the referee gave Johnson a choice: Forfeit the match or get a quick haircut to comply with athletic regulations.
Johnson opted to get his hair cut instead of forfeiting the match, which he later won in sudden-victory overtime.
But a video posted of the black teenager getting his dreadlocks cut before the match prompted anger and frustration Friday. Mike Frankel, the reporter whose video of the incident went viral, explained that as Johnson’s coaches argued the referee’s ruling, the injury time clock was started, which was when Johnson agreed to have his hair cut.
To many, the episode was another example of racial bias manifesting over seemingly personal issues such as hairstyles.
The fallout prompted state investigators to open a probe into the matter Friday.
The referee will not be assigned any matches until the review is complete, according to New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association executive director Larry White.
In a personal moment unusual for public statements, White said he spoke “as an African-American and parent — as well as a former educator, coach, official and athlete” struck by the racial and social undertones.
“I clearly understand the issues at play, and probably better than most. The NJSIAA takes this matter very seriously,” he said.
NJSIAA spokeswoman Sharon Lauchaire said the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, part of the state Attorney General’s office, opened an investigation into the incident under a 2013 agreement with the NJSIAA regarding incidents of potential bias in high school sports.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy tweeted Saturday that he was “deeply disturbed” by the incident.
“No student should have to needlessly choose between his or her identity & playing sports,” Murphy wrote.
Sports broadcaster Taylor Rooks also keyed on the racial aspect of an incident was one of “terrible discrimination.”
“The ref should be ashamed,” she wrote on Twitter. “In the black community, hair is often tied to identity. Expressing disapproval of the hair is in many ways expressing disapproval of the person.”
The referee was identified in news reports as Alan Maloney, who drew news media coverage in 2016 after a dispute with a black referee. The referee, Preston Hamilton, said at the time that Maloney, who is white, called him a racial slur during an argument, an accusation Maloney said he did not remember but did not dispute, according to the South Jersey newspaper the Courier-Post.
Maloney did not respond to a message left for him on a number listed in public records.
Bert Ashe, a professor of English and American studies at the University of Richmond, said that dreadlocks, which have become more en vogue as a black hairstyle in recent years, often provoke strong responses from people who seek to uphold cultural norms.
“The reality of cultural norms goes across all cultures in one way or another,” he said, saying that in another instance, a kid with a pink mohawk probably would face consequences in certain situations. “It’s just a penalty for violating those norms when you are not white and male is so much more severe than for the white men who violate those norms and don’t get punished.”
Others saw it as a clear-cut case of racial bias.
“This is not about hair. This is about race. How many different ways will people try to exclude Black people from public life without having to declare their bigotry?” the ACLU of New Jersey said in a statement. “This was discrimination, and it’s not okay.”
The National Federation of State High School Associations dictates the rules for high school wrestling matches. One of its new points of emphasis for wrestling officials this year is to ensure all equipment worn on the mat, including hair coverings, fits “snug” to a wrestler’s body.
Johnson was reportedly wearing a hair covering, but it was not clear whether it was in compliance with the body’s new rules. He had wrestled without incident before the match, the Courier-Post reported.
David C. Cappuccio Jr., the superintendent of the school district, said in a statement that “no school/district staff member influenced the student into making this decision.”
New Jersey is a top-ranked state for high school wrestling, according to Wrestling Insider Magazine.
Two referees who were not involved in the match told the Courier-Post that they believed that the wrestling rules had been interpreted correctly by the referee.
George Maxwell, the high school’s wrestling coach, could not immediately be reached for comment.
Ashe, who wrote Twisted: My Dreadlock Chronicles, a book about his quest to grow dreadlocks after he turned 40, said that the hairstyle has been around since antiquity, saying evidence of them had been found in tombs in ancient Egypt. But he said they were brought back into mainstream consciousness the 1960s and 70s because of the growth of Rastafarianism in Jamaica. They have continued to grow in popularity in recent years.
Ashe compared them to tattoos, saying what was began as a transgressive and nonconformist statement has increasingly become more normalized.
“It only becomes a big deal when someone who has some form of cultural authority, like a referee at a wrestling match or a principal of a private school, or someone who instead of having to deal with the reality that it’s part of American culture, can say ‘No not here, not on my watch,’” he said. “Those sorts of moments are shrinking. They’re very minute now. But that’s part of why they make the news.”
He estimated that Johnson’s dreads likely took him a couple of years to grow out.
Frankel, the reporter who captured the hair cut on camera, was criticized for his framing of the incident.
He had described Johnson as the “epitome of a team player,” setting up the story as one of a generous player making a sacrifice for his team. He later apologized because, he wrote, he had “missed the bigger picture.”
Buena, which beat Oakcrest last January to win an eighth straight Cape-Atlantic League title, won Wednesday’s dual meet, 41-24. And as the referee raised Johnson’s hand in victory after the 120-pound bout, his bottom lip was split open, and his uniform was dotted with blood spots.