The findings came after a nearly nine-month investigation intoa Dec. 19 incident at Buena Regional School, when Maloney told junior wrestler Andrew Johnson that he had to cut his dreadlocks to be able to compete. A video of school officials cutting Johnson’s hair before the match went viral on social media and caused widespread outrage.
The New Jersey Division on Civil Rights also issued a new “Guidance on Race Discrimination Based on Hairstyle” to explain that treating people differently because of their hairstyle may violate the state’s anti-discrimination laws and to help prevent such discrimination in the future, according to Grewal.
“Student athletes should be able to compete with each other on a level playing field,” Grewal said in a statement. “Racial discrimination in the enforcement of the rules of any sport is inconsistent with the spirit of fair play. The Division on Civil Rights’ action today makes it less likely that any student athlete will have to endure discrimination that not only undermines fair competition but also violates our state laws.”
The parallel investigations interviewed Johnson, Maloney, the NJSIAA rules interpreter and officials, members of the New Jersey Wrestling Officials Association, and the rules interpreter for the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), which develops and publishes the rules for high school wrestling across the country, among others.
A video of the Dec. 19 incident showed an emotional Johnson, who is biracial, standing on the mat while a white female trainer cut off his dreadlocks shortly after Maloney, who is white, had given him the ultimatum.
Following the incident, Buena made international headlines as countless politicians, celebrities, athletes and activists defended Johnson, from Chance the Rapper to New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy to the Rev. Al Sharpton.
Some in the New Jersey wrestling community defended Maloney, who in 2016 was also accused of using a racial slur during an altercation with a black referee. In March, Maloney sent a notice of intent of filing a lawsuit, claiming defamation of character and emotional distress. He could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.
According to the Division on Civil Rights investigation, Maloney had argued that Johnson’s hair violated the National Federation of State High School Associations’ Rule 4.2.1, which governs the length of an athlete’s hair and when an athlete must wear a hair cover.
“However, that rule had previously been interpreted by various New Jersey wrestling officials to require a hair covering for several traditionally Black hairstyles regardless of hair length,” Grewal said in the statement.
As part of the agreement between the Division on Civil Rights and NJSIAA, the NJSIAA will provide training to all of its local rules interpreters and to all wrestling officials in the state emphasizing that Rule 4.2.1 is based solely on hair length, not on hair style.
According to Wednesday’s release, the training will be completed before the start of this year’s wrestling season and “will also explain the long history of discrimination based on hair style.”