N.J. wrestler forced to cut dreadlocks still targeted over hair, lawyer says

Video of Andrew Johnson's haircut during a match last month led to a firestorm of criticism and accusations of abuse of power and racism.

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By Erik Ortiz

Video of a black high school wrestler in New Jersey who was forced to cut his dreadlocks at a match last month led to a firestorm of criticism against the referee and accusations of abuse of power and racism.

But following outcry from the community and the opening of a state civil rights investigation, an attorney for wrestler Andrew Johnson claims officials and referees are still giving him grief over his hair and have an "unrelenting fixation" with him.

In a letter sent Wednesday to the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, the Johnson family's lawyer, Dominic Speziali, wrote that Johnson initially took a break from competing with his team at Buena Regional High School in Atlantic County so he wouldn't be a distraction after the Dec. 19 match grabbed national headlines.

During Johnson's first match back last weekend, the 16-year-old varsity wrestler went through a routine weigh-in and check of his hair and skin. But then, Speziali said, a referee informed a Buena coach that Johnson would have to cover his hair before he could wrestle.

After Johnson's mother questioned why, she was told "that there was some confusion and it was another wrestler that would have to wear a hair covering, not Andrew," Speziali wrote.

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"However, no wrestler for Buena or Buena's first opponent wore any type of hair covering," he continued. "Andrew wrestled in four matches without wearing a hair covering and without any referee raising an issue about his hair."

Then, on Monday, an official with the state association that regulates athletics and conducts tournaments sent an email to state wrestling officials detailing which hairstyles require the hair to be covered. One image, according to NJ Advance Media, which reviewed the email, was of an unidentified black person with short, braided or dreadlocked hair and closely shaved sides.

But Elliott Hopkins, a director with the National Federation of State High School Associations, which writes the rules for competitions, told NJ Advance Media that the hair shown in the images would not require a covering despite what a state athletics association official had indicated. In general, if a wrestler's hair "in its natural state" extends past the earlobe or touches the top of a shirt, a "legal hair cover" must be worn, the rules say.

Finally, Johnson's team was set to compete again Wednesday at a home match. Speziali wrote in his letter that a day before, a referee had already warned Buena's athletic director that he "planned to require Andrew to wear a hair covering if he intended on wrestling."

As questions over hairstyle came up again, the match was abruptly canceled just hours earlier without reason.

Now, Speziali said he wants an explanation.

"Yet it appears, for reasons that the Division can hopefully soon unmask, that certain officials have a desire to unnecessarily escalate and prolong this ordeal due on an unrelenting fixation on the hair of a 16-year-old young man that asked for absolutely none of this," he added.

On Wednesday, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association announced it was also opening an investigation alongside the state to determine whether national rules in regard to hairstyle had been properly enforced.

The initial incident in December was condemned by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, Olympic wrestler Jordan Burroughs and film director Ava DuVernay, among others.

The referee at that match, Alan Maloney, who is white, had told Johnson that his hair and headgear did not comply with rules, and that if he wanted to compete, he would have to immediately cut his dreadlocks — or forfeit.

Maloney, who was once accused of calling another referee a racial slur during a March 2016 social gathering, has been suspended pending the outcome of the state investigation. He has not commented publicly about the incident, but his supporters say he was merely enforcing the rules.

David Cappuccio, the superintendent of the Buena Regional School District, has said the district "will continue to support and stand by all of our students and student athletes."