A lawyer for the family of a New Jersey high school wrestler who was told by a referee to cut his dreadlocks or forfeit his match released a statement on Monday calling the incident a "race-related transgression" and blaming the referee for showing up to the match late.
Last week, a video of Andrew Johnson, 16, a junior on the Buena Regional High School wrestling team in Atlantic County, having his hair cut went viral after it was posted to Twitter by a reporter.
A referee wouldn't allow Andrew Johnson of Buena @brhschiefs to wrestle with a cover over his dreadlocks. It was either an impromptu haircut, or a forfeit. Johnson chose the haircut, then won by sudden victory in OT to help spark Buena to a win. pic.twitter.com/f6JidKNKoI
Speziali alleged in the statement that the referee, Alan Maloney, who is white, was late to the Dec. 19 meet and missed weigh-ins. Wrestlers are typically inspected for violations prior to the start of the meet, Speziali said. When Maloney did evaluate Johnson, he did not raise any issue with the length of the teen’s hair or the need for him to wear a head covering, Speziali said.
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Johnson’s brother, Nate Johnson, who is also on the wrestling team, said in the statement that after weigh-ins, the referee told him that the brothers would need to wear a head covering or face disqualification, according to Speziali.
When Andrew Johnson took to the mat to start his match, the referee gave him the ultimatum. Johnson was permitted to wrestle without issue at other matches, including the prior weekend, his coaches told the referee, Speziali said. The lawyer said Johnson asked to just push his hair back, as he has in the past, but the referee refused again because his hair “wasn’t in its natural state” and referred to his dreadlocks as “braids," Speziali said.
“But, as captured on video, the unyielding referee gave Johnson 90 seconds to either forfeit his match or cut his hair,” Speziali said, adding “under duress” Johnson decided to have his hair cut rather than forfeit the match.
He went on to win the match in sudden-victory overtime.
Johnson’s family said they support the team's athletic trainer and Johnson's coaches, who have coached him since he was 5.
“The blame here rests primarily with the referee and those that permitted him to continue in that role despite clear evidence of what should be a disqualifying race-related transgression,” Speziali said.
Maloney was accused of calling another referee a racial slur during a March 2016 social gathering, according to the Courier-Post Journal of South Jersey.
Charles and Rosa Johnson, the teen's parents, released a statement through Speziali on Monday, thanking those who have spoken out in support of the family.
“Andrew has been deeply moved by the thunderous outpouring of unsolicited support — including from an Olympic wrestler, leading civil rights advocates, and elected officials — after the shocking prematch ultimatum,” the parents said.
Janelle Griffith is a breaking news reporter for NBC News.