The parents of an African American high school wrestler who was forced by a white official to cut his dreadlocks or forfeit his match spoke out Monday, expressing gratitude for the outpouring of support their son has received as an investigation into the incident continues.
Andrew Johnson, a junior at Buena Regional High School in southern New Jersey, was about to step on the mat for the 120-pound bout when referee Alan Maloney reportedly said his thick, dark brown dreadlocks and hair cover violated state regulations.
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.
Maloney gave Johnson a choice: get a quick haircut or forfeit the match. Buena coaches and players argued with Maloney, according to SNJToday, which tweeted out a video of the scene. But the referee started the injury clock (wrestlers are allowed 90 seconds per match to receive medical treatment) and Johnson opted for the haircut.
Dominic A. Speziali, Johnson’s attorney, said Monday in a statement that the family is waiting for the results of an investigation into the incident by the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, which began Friday. He suggested that Maloney was late for the weigh-in that day, which is where referees are supposed to inspect wrestlers' appearances and determine rule violations.
Upon evaluating Johnson, Speziali said, Maloney failed to raise any issues about the length of his hair or his hair covering. But upon taking the mat, Maloney “rejected” the head covering, Speziali said, leading to the haircut ultimatum. He called the referee’s conduct “outrageous.”
“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.”
In a statement provided by Speziali, Johnson’s parents, Charles and Rosa Johnson, said, “We are comforted by both the strength of Andrew’s character and the support he’s received from the community. We will do all that we can to make sure that no student-athlete is forced to endure what Andrew experienced.”
The situation set off a wave of criticism for the referee, who had been investigated in 2016 for directing a racial epithet at a black official. But social-media users, including high-profile figures in wrestling and mixed martial arts, have stormed to Johnson’s defense.
Jordan Burroughs, who won a gold medal in the 165-pound weight class for the United States in the 2012 Olympic Games, posted a Twitter thread commending Johnson for his selflessness sacrificing his hair style, part of his identity, for his teammates.
“The fact that with all the adversity and racism that you were facing in the moment, that you were still able to stay focused and go out there and get the W for your team, I respect that about you,” Burroughs said in a lengthy Instagram story.
Burroughs blamed parents and coaches at the meet for not doing more to stand up for Johnson.
“You guys let him down,” he said. “The bottom line is this young man, especially a young black man in a traditionally and predominantly Caucasian sport out there defenseless, you guys got to help this young man. You’ve got to protect him. In high school, as you’re growing and you’re developing, you’re establishing who you are, you’re creating an identity. I know, as a young black man, how much my hair meant to me. And I also know, as a black man, how long it takes to grow dreads and how much discipline it takes to maintain them.”
Multiple civil rights leaders identified Johnson’s dreadlocks as an element of African American culture.
“Your hairstyle comes out of your culture and your preference and has nothing to do with your athletic ability,” Rev. Al Sharpton said at National Action Network rally in New York.
“Unfortunately, this is not first time we’ve seen a kid forced to live through a humiliating moment because someone didn’t approve of his hairstyle,” the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund tweeted.
Filmmaker Ava Duvernay tweeted: “I don’t just wear locs. They are a part of me. A gift to me. They mean something to me. So to watch this young man’s ordeal, wrecked me. The criminalization of what grows from him.”
Burroughs said he was attempting to speak with Johnson to offer some encouragement. He also said he planned to send him “few cool things for Christmas.”
“I know it won’t help ease the pain,” Burroughs said, “but hopefully it gives you a little bit of love.”
Mixed martial arts fighter Aljamain Sterling told TMZ Sports he tried to contact Johnson so the two could train together. Tyron Woodley, the reigning UFC welterweight champion, told the site in all his years of wrestling, he wore various hairstyles, but was never asked to alter his appearance before a match. He did have to wear a hair cover, though.
“It just shows the sport and then people in general just don’t understand the culture,” he said. To Johnson, he added, “I respect you and I admire your ability to focus on the task at hand in a pressure situation and go out there and whoop that kid’s a--.”