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Referee gets two-year ban for cutting of wrestler’s dreadlocks

New Jersey will require implicit bias training for officials and staff involved in high school sports

The referee who forced a New Jersey high school wrestler to choose between cutting his hair on the mat or forfeiting his match has been banned from officiating for two years, according to an agreement released Wednesday by the state attorney general’s office and the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association.

The agreement also requires referees, coaches and athletic administrators in all high school sports across the state to undergo implicit bias training and mandates that wrestling officials be trained about hair discrimination.

Andrew Johnson, who goes by Drew, chose to have his hair cut by a trainer in the minutes before a match on Dec. 19 rather than forfeit a crucial conference contest. Although his dreadlocks did not violate rules on length, referee Alan Maloney, who is white, ruled that Drew’s hair was “unnatural” and therefore required a cap. Drew had been allowed to wrestle by other referees, and the team could not locate a suitable cap at the time.

Video of Drew’s haircut went viral, and the outcry focused attention on the history of discrimination and demonization of African American hair. The incident prompted a bill in the New Jersey legislature that would ban hair discrimination, and California passed a similar measure.

Maloney, a veteran official with a history of racist language and other questionable behavior, gave a written statement after the match saying Drew’s hair “was not in its natural state, it was braided,” according to the memorandum of agreement between the NJSIAA and the state attorney general’s Division on Civil Rights, which conducted the investigation. Four months later, he told investigators that he did not know the difference between braids and dreadlocks and believed that both represent hair that is “not in its natural state.”

Maloney’s attorney did not return a phone call seeking comment.

The Johnson family’s attorney, Dominic A. Speziali, released a statement saying that Maloney should be permanently banned. “Andrew Johnson scored another decisive win today, not on the mat, but for the progress of civil rights in New Jersey,” Speziali said in the statement.

Speziali thanked the attorney general’s office for “boldly reaffirming that unlawful discrimination in New Jersey cannot hide behind hair-based pretexts … we hope that no athlete going forward will be forced to sacrifice their identity for the opportunity to compete.”

The Division on Civil Rights and the NJSIAA said they are clarifying the rules governing hair and providing implicit bias and other training to make sure they are not applied in a way that discriminates against black wrestlers.

“Student-athletes should be able to compete with each other on a level playing field,” said Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal. “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.”

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.