Ward: Impromptu haircut not a good look for wrestling

If you're on Twitter you've probably seen it, the video, that as of Friday night had been viewed nearly six million times, of a black high school wrestler who had to cut off his dreadlocks in order to compete in a match. The rules call for anyone who has hair longer than a certain length to wear a hair net. In this case the referee, who is white, said the hair net wasn't enough and a trainer or coach cut Andrew Johnson's dreads moments before he took the mat. Johnson competed, won the match, was cheered by the crowd and supported by his teammates.

Andrew Johnson gets his hair cut
But look closely at the video. Johnson, a wrestler at Buena Regional High School in New Jersey, is not happy he "took one for the team." Instead he looks mortified, embarrassed and upset.

Now of course it's only hair. It will grow back, but look at it from the point of view of a teenager. As a teen, identity is everything and identity is wrapped up in appearance. Johnson's dreadlocks might be a point of particular pride in his look and more importantly in his cultural affinity.

The social media outrage for what happened and specifically for referee Alan Maloney, who enforced what's being called an "antiquated and racist" rule was swift and came from all corners.

Chance the Rapper weighed in, so did NCAA champion wrestler Seth Gross, as well as InterMat writer and All-American wrestler T.R. Foley. All of them agree on one thing -- this is racially motivated.

In answering to those who say rules are rules and the ref was just enforcing them, Gross responded with the following observations: that those things should be dealt with at the pre-match weigh-ins, that this particular referee was suspended two years ago for racist slurs and that he wouldn't allow Johnson to wrestle even with a hair net.

Wrestling is a niche sport struggling to grow its audience and its participation level. Much has been debated about the singlet as a deterrent to recruiting teens who see them as not cool. That might be problematic, but this is on another level. This is the kind of public perception that puts wrestling on its back.

And it comes at a time when the numbers for female wrestlers are taking off both in college and high school. Girls high school wrestling participation numbers have grown for 29 consecutive years. Last season, 16,562 girls participated in wrestling, which was an increase of 1,975 athletes from the year before.

But there are positives here. Everyone in the gym cheered that wrestler on and rallied around him. His coach and his teammates were clearly 100 percent behind him, supporting him and celebrating him as he came off the mat. This is the picture of wrestling that participants and fans know. This is what needs to go viral rather than the view of the sport as backward and racist, one where a ref can pick a rule to enforce arbitrarily to humiliate a young man of color.

Inquiring minds want to know if that same referee enforced the rule calling for all wrestlers who wear braces to wear both a top and bottom mouth guard? Did he enforce the rule about shoe laces being covered?

The incident should be investigated and if it's found this referee did not enforce all rules equally, but instead focused on this as a chance to single out a black wrestler for shame and punishment, then of course, Maloney has to go. He should be banned from the sport. To its credit the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association recommended that Maloney be sidelined until a review is conducted, according to a article. According to that same article the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights has opened an investigation.

But the bigger picture is that high school wrestling needs to look at the rules, especially this one, and ask if the original purpose is still served and if the rule helps or hurts the sport.

The rule says a wrestler's hair can't exceed the length of a normal shirt collar in the back, it can't extend below the earlobes on the sides and in the front cannot extend below the eyebrows. If it does it must be put in a covering or hair net. According to Anthony Clarke, the head clinician for the Illinois High School Association and member of the National Federation of High Schools rules committee, the original purpose of this was to shield opponents from diseases such as lice. Later in the '60's and '70's it was for aesthetics. Wrestling wanted its athletes to have a clean-cut look, but the rule hasn't kept up with the times. Clarke, who is black, said it was "overkill" what happened to Johnson.

Now wrestling needs to let its hair down and there's optimism that is exactly what might happen. Changes to this particular rule had already been in the works. Clarke said a change was submitted last year, but was too gender specific to female wrestlers. It will be revised and resubmitted so no other young person will have to endure what Johnson did under the guise of a rule. Clarke noted that student-athletes wrestle with their hair uncovered in practice for two hours a day. He said it no longer makes sense that they would need to cover it for a six-minute match.

The more difficult problem and much more difficult fix for the sport is the insidiousness of racism. Unfortunately, that is not unique to wrestling and will not go away with a rule change.


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CoreyCA (2) about 8 months ago
I have a problem with the premise that the rule was the issue in this particular case. IMHO the referee. who is rightfully under scrutiny, misapplied the existing rule. The wrestler should have been allowed to participate with a hair cover. In addition, this should have been dealt with at weigh-ins. I have no problem with changing the rule and this will likely be the impetus to do so. I am bothered by the optics for the sport. While it is easy to throw around the word racist, particularly given Mr. Maloney's history, I will say that this is not the first time in my many years of involvement with the sport that I've known of a wrestler, white, black or hispanic, who has had to cut his hair in order to compete, but this was always done in the locker room after weigh-ins. I would guess that Mr. Maloney's career could well be over as well. This is probably a good thing.
Monsieur Tarzan (1) about 8 months ago
Ultimately, a ref's job is to look out for the wrestlers. This ref did the exact opposite.
IdeaMark (1) about 8 months ago
Excellent article, Caryn! This incident has exploded well beyond the wrestling community in New Jersey to blow up social media and be featured on at least two Saturday morning network news shows. Even Jordan Burroughs has weighed in. However one feels about "following the rules" this is not the kind of publicity wrestling needs. Here's hoping good will ultimately come from this.

Mark Palmer, Senior Writer
HokieToph (3) about 8 months ago
I think there is a lot more to the story that needs to be checked out before anyone starts crying racism.
1. Was the hair issue dealt with at weigh ins? Maybe the kid weighed in, ref said something about hair and the response was that he had a cover. When the kid went to wrestle, if the cover wasn't legal then what is the ref supposed to do?
2. There is another black wrestler on Buena's team as seen in the video. I'm guessing there wasn't an issue with him when he was up to wrestle?
3. Why is the coach even allowing this kid to cut his hair? In my opinion, any coach worth his salt says the match isn't worth the kid having to go through this.

This could turn out to be an issue of race ... but it also could turn out not to be as well. I'd let things play out and an assessment be done before crying racisim.
N0rrin (3) about 8 months ago
Aa a black man I'm alarmed at the accusations of racism here. The rule was adopted in the 60s and 70s when it was white men wearing their hair long not black men. So the rule isn't racist, not against blacks at least. They probably meant to target rocker and hippy culture, not black culture.

We have to do better teaching kids that they aren't their hair, to quote an India.Arie song about dreadlocks! 😃 Hair is just fashion, and dreadlocks aren't Afrocentric, they're Rastafarian. They look nice but the focus on identity is misplaced. The adults are doing this kid no favors. A race neutral rule isn't racist just because you don't like it. In the 80s we had Jerry curls and rat tails. My tail never got so long that I had to cut it off but I wouldn't have had a problem doing so. Cuz I'm not my hair.
black_sabathia (1) about 8 months ago
Really a non issue and story that will fade quickly. This is not an issue of race and seriously who wants to wrestle with long hair? The ref did that kid a favor.
cradleman (1) about 8 months ago
Problem is the Coaches who failed to prepare their wrestler to compete. It's always been part of the pre-meet where the official asks the Coach if they have any special equipment or something that is special equipment. Too bad that not enough coaches read the rule book and certainly not the fans/parents. Wrestling does their own damage to themselves. Time for coaches to go back to coaching the WHOLE wrestler instead of teaching just x's and o's. The sport has a lot to offer especially in the area of personal responsibility. The rule might not be so popular but it is the rule.
engineerlehigh (1) about 8 months ago
Post the governing body rules on hygiene and equipment. You will see the referee enforced as written. Choice to cut hair was wrestlers and coach. I have seen referees disqualify for number of hair issues, equipment, etc. I even seen referee enforce hygiene by compelling a wrestler to shower because he stunk so bad. The rules are for both wrestlers protection. This is much to do about nothing.
aggieheaven (1) about 8 months ago
There was nothing racially motivated at all here and it is disappointing to see Intermat Wrestle join the click bait brigade of fake news. I live in PA on the eastern border and was a coach at a youth club where these rules are applied regularly. NJ and PA have nearly identical rules. I had three wrestlers, including my own daughter, that ran afoul of these rules despite wearing caps. My daughter wore the required cap and if her hair spilled out from under, time was called to fix the hair spillage. I never once consider it as a "sexist" act by the ref to put my daughter on the injury clock for her hair, as we knew the rules upfront. It is abundantly clear that the wrestler here was in violation of the rule and the ref acted within the rules to place him on the clock until resolved. Excessive hair is an injury risk and that is why the rule is in place. Very disappointing that Intermat Wrestle would push the racism narrative to generate a few nickels rather then understanding better the rule that was applied CORRECTLY on this wrestler.
Sheerstress (1) about 8 months ago
Very misleading analysis. This wrestler had already been warned in a tournament the week before that his equipment was not appropriate, but was allowed to compete at that competition anyway. Then, when he shows up to this tournament again improperly equipped, the ref enforced the rules, which was his job. The problem should have been addressed in the pre-meet inspection, but in the end it is the responsibility of the ATHLETE and his COACH to ensure that he shows up to the mat properly equipped and ready to wrestle.

This incident was not about race, it was about an athlete's and coach's irresponsible behavior, and the fallout that ensued.
Cwal152 (1) about 8 months ago
One important thing to note here is regarding the hair cover. Not all hair covers are acceptable. It needs to a specific hair cover attached to head gear. This prevents the hair cover from coming unattached during the match creating unnecessary stoppages. This rule was put into place only a few years ago but was discussed extensively with the coaches. We don’t know all of the facts regarding what happened pre match, but not always are the officials able to make weigh ins due to prior commitments (like a day job). There is a shortage of officials and most do the best they can to get to event assigned despite all of this. Regardless, it is stil the wrestler and coaches responsibility to report to the mat equipped and ready to wrestle. No one made the kid cut his hair. And I’m also 100 percent confident that he was not the firdt lod to cut his hair.
mikelo (1) about 8 months ago
Brothers and I wrestled in the 80s in NY. Our team was well aware that if the ref was not happy with our hair, nails or whiskers, there would be immediate remedies overseen by a ref who would not care what u looked like in school mon morning.
Hopefully the ref was only concerned about wrestlers safety and not other ignorant things.
PoppaV (1) about 8 months ago
It has become far to easy to for the media to rush to judgement and claim racial motivations, and particularly in this case given the past incident with this ref.
No question, the ref also blew his responsibilities to check head gear in the locker room. But this issue goes deeper than the locker room and mat side snipping.

There is an established rule that requires the hairnet to be attached to the head gear. That is a well known wrestling rule, one that every coach is well aware of.
The hairnet used by Johnson did not comply. Why was it not compliant? Where has this coach been since season practice started? The team coaches attended a rules workshop just 2 weeks prior. The schools in NJ provide the head gear for their student athletes so they are same for all. Did this coach not purchase head gear with the net attached? If this coach allowed the wrestlers to purchase his/her own head gear, why did the coach not advise Johnson to purchase head gear with the net that qualified? All of this could have been avoided had the coach been doing his job and not scoffing the rule.
Monsieur Tarzan (1) about 8 months ago
His hair didn't even look that long. It didn't look any longer than Isaiah Martinez's hair was when he won his first NCAA championship.
khosango (1) about 8 months ago
trying fighting