Andrew Johnson gets a haircut before competingIn terms of mainstream media coverage and social media buzz, it's not Team USA's incredible performance at the 2018 Worlds. Nor is it Penn State winning yet another national team title at the 2018 NCAA Division I championships. Nor is it that the number of states announcing the creation of a separate state championships for girls has doubled in the past year. And, no, it's not some feel-good story of a wrestler overcoming adversity.
Arguably the biggest wrestling story springs from a video of a Dec. 19 New Jersey high school wrestling dual showing a wrestler having his dreadlocks cut off by a team trainer so that he can wrestle the match, per the mat official's instructions that he have his hair cut, or forfeit the match.
How big is the story?
At last count, the video has been viewed more than 13 million times online.
In geographical terms, it's gone way beyond New Jersey. It's been covered by news organizations across the U.S, along with media outlets in New Zealand, the U.K., Germany and Russia. Media organizations that normally don't cover high school wrestling have weighed in, including Sports Illustrated, TMZ, Fox News, CNN and National Public Radio. It was the subject of stories on the Sunday (Dec. 23) morning news shows on ABC and CBS, as well as the Sunday evening newscasts on ABC and NBC.
Thousands of individuals and organizations have also shared their opinions, including the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA), the governor of New Jersey, an Olympic gold medalist, and a reality TV star. A number of sportswriters and columnists sided with the wrestler, some seeking punishment for the mat official; for example, a USA Today columnist recommended a lifetime ban for the referee. InterMat contributor Caryn Ward offered her thoughtful perspective on the situation.
At a dual between two New Jersey schools -- Buena Regional High School and Oakcrest High -- on Wednesday, Dec. 19, Andrew Johnson, a 120-pound junior for the Buena Chiefs, was ready to face off against David Flippen of Oakcrest. When Johnson, an African-American, stepped onto the mat with his dreadlocks covered, the primary mat official, Alan Maloney, 62, reportedly told the wrestler he could either have his hair cut, or forfeit the match. According to SJN News Today sports director Mike Frankel -- who was recording the dual on video -- Johnson's coaches argued with Maloney (who is white) for "several minutes" saying that Johnson had wrestled at a tournament the previous weekend with the same head covering he was wearing for the Dec. 19 dual, without any issues. According to Frankel, "the referee started the injury time clock. At this point, the wrestler removed the cap, and agreed to have his hair cut."
An athletic trainer for Buena trimmed Johnson's dreadlocks matside with scissors until Maloney said the length of the wrestler's hair was in compliance with the rules.
After getting his dreadlocks cut, the match began. Johnson earned a sudden victory, 4-2. Buena went on to win the dual, 41-24.
Frankel's video went viral, garnering millions of views online.
According to multiple media reports, Alan Maloney had been accused of racism in the past. In 2016, the Courier Post -- a Gannett newspaper in New Jersey -- reported that Maloney was accused of directing a racial slur at another referee during a private gathering among other officials. The newspaper states that Maloney allegedly poked referee Preston Hamilton in the chest and used the "n-word" during an argument. The Post reported that Hamilton, who is black, slammed Maloney to the ground. Maloney told the newspaper at the time he did not remember making the remark but accepted the witnesses' accounts.
An administrator for a New Jersey-based online amateur wrestling forum posted the following message early Sunday evening (Dec. 23): "What (the referee) did was follow the rule. This young man and coach were told it's an illegal hair cover in the pre-meet talk. The ref did not make him cut his hair. The ref deducted one team point and started the injury time clock as per the RULES when the young man came out with hair covering he knew was illegal. Coaches and wrestler decided to cut hair..."
On Friday (Dec. 21), the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association referred the incident to the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights in correspondence with the state's sportsmanship policy. The Division on Civil Rights, which operates within the New Jersey state Attorney General's office, has opened an inquiry into the matter and will serve as the main investigatory agency moving forward.
In a statement Friday night, a spokeswoman for the office of New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said its civil rights division opened an investigation into the incident as part of a 2013 agreement with the NJSIAA "to address potential bias in high school sports."
On Monday -- Christmas Eve -- Andrew Johnson's family released a statement through an attorney stating referee Alan Maloney was late to the dual and didn't address the length of Johnson's hair at a customary pre-match meeting, according to NJ.com. Later at that event, Maloney issued an ultimatum for the junior to cut his hair or forfeit his bout against Oakcrest Wednesday just before the bout was set to begin.
"Andrew was visibly shaken after he and his coaches made every effort to satisfy the referee short of having his hair cut," the statement reads. "But, as captured on video, the unyielding referee gave Andrew 90 seconds to either forfeit his match or cut his hair. Under duress but without any influence from the coaching staff or the athletic trainer, Andrew decided to have his hair cut rather than forfeit the match."
The statement then quotes attorney Dominic A. Speziali: "As the trainer is cutting Andrew's hair in the middle of the gym, the referee is behind them directing her to keep cutting until he was satisfied with the length."
According to NJ.com, the statement issued by the Johnson family's lawyer absolves the school's wrestling coaching staff and trainer of any blame.
Reactions beyond wrestling
The incident generated comment within the wrestling community, and well beyond. Reality TV star Khloe Kardashian posted the following on social media: "This is disgusting! Beyond heartbreaking."
The governor of New Jersey, Phil Murphy, tweeted: "Deeply disturbed that Andrew Johnson, a student at Buena Regional H.S., was forced to choose between keeping his dreadlocks and competing in a wrestling tournament. No student should have to."
The wrestler's mom shared her perspective on what happened to her son.
"Hardest thing I've ever seen," Rose Santiago-Johnson wrote on Facebook, according to the New York Post. "He is good now … but that was brutal emotionally and physically."
School organizations weigh in
The school superintendent for Andrew Johnson's school, David Cappuccio, Jr., offered this statement: "The assigned referee indicated that the wrestler's hair length and headgear were not in compliance with regulations. At that time, the compliance rules being enforced by the referee dictated that if the wrestler's hair was not in compliance with the regulations, then the match would be forfeited.
The student-athlete made the decision to have his hair cut, at that moment, in order to avoid a forfeiture of the match."
On Saturday, Dec. 22, the NJSIAA issued the following statement from its executive director, Larry White: "Following up on yesterday's statement concerning a Buena Regional High School (Buena, NJ) varsity wrestler and a wrestling referee, the NJSIAA can now confirm that the matter will be investigated by state authorities. The NJSIAA will be working with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, providing all requested information. The State investigation will take precedence over the NJSIAA process.
"Further, NJSIAA can confirm that those groups that assign high school wrestling referees in New Jersey will not assign the referee in question until this matter has been thoroughly reviewed. This will help to avoid disruption of events for student athletes .
"Finally, as an African-American and parent -- as well as a former educator, coach, official and athlete -- I clearly understand the issues at play, and probably better than most. The NJSIAA takes this matter very seriously, and I ask that everyone respect the investigatory process related to all parties involved."
The wrestling community comments
The incident in New Jersey generated what could be a labeled a firestorm of reaction online, in wrestling forums and on social media, with comments from individuals from the Garden State and beyond.
NJ Advance Media -- part of a media empire which includes the Newark Star-Ledger and other New Jersey-based newspapers -- interviewed a number of high school coaches, athletes and officials at wrestling events in New Jersey on Saturday.
"What happened in Buena is like a dagger into the heart of the sport," said veteran Long Branch High coach Dan George, who tallied his 400th career win in Jan. 2018. "It seems like some officials don't understand how hard it is to fill 14 weight classes or get 25 kids to come out for wrestling.
"This certainly can't help wrestling," he continued. "I've never encountered anything racist as a wrestler or a coach, but this only fuels the idea that there is discrimination."
"I do think wrestling coaches and officials need to get one the same page when it comes to issues like this one," coach George said. "It's important to remember why we are all here."
Clay Lewis, a freshman wrestler from Pennsylvania's Abington Friends school who has long hair, said he "definitely felt bad for the kid."
"It's such a relatable thing for me so I know how hard of a decision that would have been," Lewis said. "Even though he still went out and won after, it must have been humiliating. That's his personality and his identity, and it got cut because some referee said he had to."
As the NJ.com article pointed out, a number of individuals interviewed for the story stated that wrestlers usually have their hair, nails, skin and facial hair checked by referees during weigh-ins before taking to the mat. It's at that point potential issues are typically raised, they said.
"You want to find out more before you start making judgment calls, but it looks like the ref was wrong for not addressing it at the skin check when it's supposed to be addressed," said Bergen Catholic state champion Robert Howard, who earlier this month committed to wrestle at Penn State. "It was not the right call because it should have been addressed earlier."
Let's look at the rulebook
The National Federation of High Schools (NFHS) provides governance and guidance regarding high school sports -- including wrestling -- throughout the U.S. Here is the text from page 31 of the official 2018-19 NFHS Wrestling Rules Book, Section 2, Article 1: Wrestlers' Appearance and Health
"If an individual has hair longer than allowed by rule, it may be braided or rolled if it is contained in a cover so that the hair rule is satisfied. (Photo 4) The legal hair cover shall be attached to the ear guards. A bandanna is not considered a legal hair cover. The legal hair cover must be of a solid material and be nonabrasive. The wrestler opting to wear a legal hair cover must wear it to the weigh-in procedure and be checked for grooming with it on. The legal hair cover must be removed prior to the wrestler stepping on the scale to be weighed. If a referee is not present at weigh-ins, the hair cover must be checked by the meet referee upon arrival at the site."
In December 2014, the Facebook page Illinois Girls Wrestling posted this message regarding proper hair covering:
"The NFHS has implemented a rule this year that states that plain skull or swim caps can not be worn under headgear to cover long hair. You now must utilize a hair cover that attaches to your headgear like the 'slicker' from Cliff Keen or the Matman Hair Cap with Eyelets. High School wrestlers with long hair must have one or they will not be able to wrestle. Some have resorted to making holes in their skull cap and run straps through them in an attempt to meet the requirement and it might work but likely will eventually tear and leave you without a hair cover... "
For additional perspective beyond the NFHS rule book, InterMat contacted Fred Feeney, 30-year wrestling official from Ohio.
"The rules are pretty clear-cut," Feeney told InterMat. "The wrestler had hair that needed to be covered."
"In Ohio, two refs are picked to do weigh-ins. First thing they check is hair and skin.... If a kid has hair that needs covering, the kid is told he needs it for weigh-in. Same as a kid who needs a shave, or to have his fingernails trimmed."
"If a kid presents himself for a match with the wrong uniform or no head covering, the referee makes sure the wrestler takes appropriate action to be in compliance by a) getting a legal hair cap or b) get a haircut. Otherwise, the wrestler must forfeit the match," according to Feeney, who, in addition to officiating at 26 national championships (including 16 NCAA championships), served as a consultant to the 2014 film "Foxcatcher" about the Jan. 1996 murder of legendary wrestler/coach Dave Schultz at the hands of wrestling benefactor John du Pont.
"It's my understanding that the New Jersey wrestler had been wearing something that wasn't approved. In the past, a wrestler could wear a skull cap. Now the hair cap must attach to the wrestler's headgear."
"If indeed the referee (Maloney) had been late to weigh-ins, he should have called the other official at the dual. They could have conferred about any issues at that time."
"It would appear that the ones to blame are the officials who didn't enforce the rules in an earlier event," Feeney added. "Officials need to follow the rules and be consistent in applying them."
New Jersey native Jordan Burroughs tweets message to wrestler
New Jersey native Jordan Burroughs, a two-time NCAA champ for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who went on to win five World titles -- including a gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics in men's freestyle -- posted an extended message on his @allIseeisgold Twitter account. Here is the portion directed toward Andrew Johnson, the high school wrestler who submitted to the on-the-mat haircut:
"I'm sure a lot of you have heard about the young man who was forced to cut his hair during a wrestling match in order to avoid being disqualified. That young man is Andrew Johnson of Buena High School in New Jersey.
"Let me start off by saying, I commend Andrew for stepping up, and being selfless, cutting his hair and getting the final takedown in over time to win his match and help his team secure the dual victory.
"Now, let me tell you how sickening this is. I've been wrestling for 25 years, at every level, and I have never once seen a person required to cut their hair during a match. This is nonsense. As a referee, you are required to check the hair and nails of all wrestlers BEFORE a match. My opinion is that this was a combination of an abuse of power, racism, and just plain negligence.
"As heroic as it was for Andrew to step up in the midst of what was happening, it shouldn't have got that far. The parents and coaches of the Buena wrestling team should have intervened. This young man should have been protected in this moment. I'm sure his hair was a strong part of his identity, and no single victory is worth succumbing to the pressure of unjust oppression and the unwarranted stripping of that identity. Just watch Andrew's emotion after the match clinching takedown --he was somber, knowing that he had just given up so much for so little.
"Sometimes taking a stand for something doesn't actually mean standing, but walking away from it.
"As for the referee Alan Maloney, he needs to be held accountable. You've been refereeing for far too long to not know better. But more than being reprimanded, I truly hope this event causes you to reflect and make an attempt to truly understand. In an occupation that requires so much interaction with young men, your character should reflect your power. Andrew -- I am wishing the best for you and your family. I'm so sorry you had to go through this. But don't lose hope. Trials like this undoubtedly spark change, and I have no doubt your character will shine through."