Wrestler forced to cut off dreadlocks or face disqualification during match

Andrew Johnson agrees to have hair cut at side of the court before going on to win the match, but appeared visibly distraught

Maya Oppenheim@mayaoppenheim
Saturday 22 December 2018 18:08
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White referee makes black high school wrestler cut dreads to compete

Footage of a wrestler being forced to choose between chopping off his dreadlocks or forfeiting a match has prompted accusations of racism.

Andrew Johnson, a New Jersey high school wrestler, was told by referee Alan Maloney that both his hair and hair cover violated wrestling rules during a competition in southern New Jersey on Wednesday.

Mr Johnson agreed to have his hair cut at the side of the court before going on to win the match, but appeared visibly distraught.

A video of the Buena Regiona high school wrestler tweeted by a local reporter was widely shared on social media – with critics describing the incident as “racist,” “cruel” and “humiliating”.

Mike Frankel, whose video of the incident has been viewed more than 12 million times, with the comment "epitome of a team player".

He said: "The wrestler's coaches argued the referee's decision for several minutes, until the referee started the injury time clock.

"At this point, the wrestler removed the cap, and agreed to have his hair cut."

In the face of a barrage of criticism, Mr Frankel apologised for "missing the bigger picture".

“Obviously it was naive of me to run with the ‘consummate team player’ angle," he said.

"In my mind, it was just the ultimate selfless move from a high school athlete. I know now I missed the bigger picture, and for that I apologise.

"Things can be ‘framed’ in a number of ways. According to many of you, I missed the correct ‘framing’ here. I understand many of you watch this video and feel strong emotions. I do too.

"I'd just like to remind you that I didn't cause the action, I documented the action. And my method of delivery fell short in many ways."

The referee, Mr Maloney, was criticised in 2016 for reportedly using a racial slur against a black referee at a social gathering of New Jersey wrestling officials.

He allegedly poked Preston Hamilton in the chest and allegedly used a racial slur during a row over homemade wine.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey said the matter was about race rather than hair.

“How many different ways will people try to exclude black people from public life without having to declare their bigotry?” they said. “We’re so sorry this happened to you, Andrew. This was discrimination, and it’s not ok.”

The state’s Interscholastic Athletic Association said they were recommending Mr Maloney not be assigned to any event until the issue had been reviewed more thoroughly.

A spokesperson for the attorney general of New Jersey, Gurbir S Grewal, said the Division on Civil Rights has also opened an investigation into what took place.

Shaun King, a civil rights activist, called it “disgusting and heartbreaking,” saying it should never have been allowed.

US sports broadcaster Taylor Rooks argued the incident was one of “terrible discrimination.”

She said: “The ref should be ashamed. In the black community, hair is often tied to identity. Expressing disapproval of the hair is in many ways expressing disapproval of the person.”

According to wrestling rules set by the National Federation of State High School Associations, wrestlers are allowed to wear legal hair covers during matches.

They state that of a wrestler’s hair in its natural state extends below the earlobe on the sides or touches the top of a normal shirt, it must be secured in a hair cover.

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