The haircut was first sent out by a local reporter who framed the moment as something like self-sacrifice for the good of the team, "Wrestler sacrifices his looks to help team win dual meet."
The tune quickly changed when fans who watched the pre-match incident took umbrage with the idea that an athlete would be forced to cut their hair in order to compete in an athletic activity, not to mention a black teen who was being asked to trim a hairstyle predominant in his culture and community.
The story grew from there when it was discovered that Maloney had a previous offense where he had used a racial slur during a social gathering of referees. His actions led to a suspension and sanction. However, Maloney was allowed to return to the mats to referee.
As the story grew the incident started to feel like a racial litmus test, placing members of our community into buckets of "individual responsibility (aka 'He knew the rules!')" and "cultural reflection (aka "This is racially motivated.')"
I fall more into the second bucket but think that I'm also inhabiting a third bucket which is something like, "This was 100 percent preventable" (aka update the grooming rules). More on this further down.
What Maloney did was only justifiable by the narrowest interpretation of the rulebook, in which the term "natural" could have been the disqualifying. However, he only made him trim the dreadlocks, which were legal length being that it was above the shirt collar and off Johnson's forehead, but they may have been treated with some type of product or put into an otherwise "unnatural" state.
Cutting the hair deemed "unnatural" didn't make it more natural, just shorter. Also, wouldn't it be a slippery slope if high school referees began to more broadly apply the term "natural" to an athlete's hair? Given the predominance and popularity of hair gel among high school boys I'd think half of South Jersey would be declared ineligible to compete if referees began running their fingers through the athlete's hair.
This incident is preventable and the rules governing grooming should be modernized immediately. As an article in Vocativ pointed out regarding the monitoring of facial hair, the rules were mostly made in the 1960's as a way to combat the rise of black America's individualism.
But in American sports, efforts to control grooming habits have a racist history, used by white sporting bodies and coaching staffs to restrict opportunities and control the identities of black athletes.
Sylvester Hodges had a chance at a NCAA wrestling championship in 1969. Wrestling for California State College at Hayward, Hodges won the Far West Conference title without a loss or conceding a point. But when Hodges took to the mat for his first match of the NCAA Championship tournament, the referee stopped him. "Hodges, I can't let you wrestle," the referee told him. "We'll give you two minutes to cut your mustache off."
The year prior, the NCAA had added a new rule declaring that wrestlers must be "clean shaven," which they later specified to mean "no hair below the earlobes." The rule was never enforced until Hodges, a black man, threatened to run through his largely white competition at the NCAA championships. Eleven other wrestlers -- eight black, three white -- shaved off their facial hair at the competition. Hodges, sporting a pencil-thin mustache, refused.
The solution is clear: Wrestling must revisit their rulebooks and cull any language regarding violations that might be rooted in antiquated thinking. The hair rules should be loosened and there should be significantly more clarity about the options for student-athletes if there is a violation.
We are fifty years removed from the first writing of these regulations. Wrestling needs to modernize, adapt, and reach out to all groups of people. What makes our sport wonderful is its universality and adaptability. Rules regarding hair should be as inclusive as those regarding those with physical disabilities, emotional challenges, or lifelong ailments.
Despite our best storylines surrounding acceptance, wrestling is still punishing itself with backwards and regressive thinking about sexuality, gender, and the acceptance of minority communities. It's time we demand more from our coaches, administrators and leaders and demand they create an inclusive and inviting sport for all to enjoy.
To your questions …
J'den Cox defeated Kyle Dake to make the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team at 86 kilograms (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
Q: Better chance to make the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team, Kyle Dake or J'den Cox?
-- Mike C.
Foley: Kyle Dake and J'den Cox are both 2018 world champions at non-Olympic weight categories. Cox was the Olympic bronze medalist in 2016 and world bronze medalist at 86 kilograms and has gone up. Dake was the 2017 U.S. World Team Trials runner-up at 74 kilograms and has also gone up a weight category.
Those are the back stories, but there are some major differences in their trajectory heading into the 2020 qualification process.
While things can always change, it is likely that we will see Dake drop to 74 kilograms for the Olympic year and Cox go up to 97 kilograms. I've been told that Dake can make it down and Cox cannot, though the impact of the same day weigh-ins is still unknown.
Assuming that both go their expected direction, Cox would have a much tougher time winning his matchup with Kyle Snyder, than Dake would with Burroughs. Except that Dake's conditioning and strength may suffer from the extra five kilos he'd need to lose. Also, Dake would probably need to navigate the Olympic Team Trials, which is additional weight cutting.
Cox wouldn't be undersized, but he would be outpowered. That may impact him against Snyder who has taken quite the shine to lifting heavy things, but it also may impact him against the rest of the 97-kilogram field.
I'm leaning towards Dake having a better chance, but I don't think that his chances have improved because of his success at 79 kilograms, just that Burroughs is a little older and Dake has shown the ability to compete well against him in this setting.
To be clear, I am NOT saying that he will beat Burroughs …
Q: What do you think are the ideal number of matches in a high school season? Varsity vs. JV?
Foley: I think that it's more about a limit to the number of weigh-ins during a season, and the maximum number of matches allowed to be wrestled in a day.
Just spit balling here, but I think that no more than 20 weigh-ins (two weigh-ins for a two-day event) and no more than four matches in a day for varsity athletes. The same would apply for JV athletes.
Jordan Burroughs Reacts to the Andrew Johnson Incident
Q: Do you have a prediction on Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson this Saturday night?
-- Mike C.
Foley: I'm very much pulling for Alexander Gustafsson. The Jones saga is a tired bit of failure without true redemption. Each and every time he does something boneheaded, or gets caught for substance abuse, or pops for a steroid, we are told this is the last straw. Yet, here we are again. The story is lame. Jones is lame. Cormier is the one true double champion!
War Gustafsson and let's move forward with some fresh storylines in the sport.
Q: I've heard one Division I coach say that he could not publicly discuss recruits until they have signed a National Letter Of Intent. How does that work at Ivy League schools that do not have recruits sign NLOIs?
-- Brian G.
Foley: If the athlete isn't accepted in the fall, then the coaches have to wait until spring acceptance to comment. There is (typically) no acceptance announcement outside of the school's normal timeline. Therefore, coaches can't discuss the athletes until they have been accepted and agreed to attend the university via a returned letter, which is most often in the spring.
Q: What was your favorite Christmas gift this year?
-- Mike C.
Foley: For me? Luggage. I travel about 80-100 days a year and though I have nice wheeled luggage I needed a duffel to help me manage my personal stuff, instead of throwing it into various Pelican cases as extra padding for camera equipment.
How about the readers? Anything unique and/or wrestling related?