Referee's forcing wrestler to cut dreadlocks at match sparks N.J. civil rights probe

"My opinion is that this was a combination of an abuse of power, racism, and just plain negligence," said Olympic wrestler Jordan Burroughs.

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By Janelle Griffith

New Jersey has opened a state civil rights investigation into the case of a black high school wrestler told by a referee to cut his dreadlocks or forfeit a wrestling match in an incident caught on video that has gone viral.

The haircut to Andrew Johnson, a black varsity wrestler from Buena Regional High School in Atlantic County, on the order of referee Alan Maloney, who is white, was captured on a video that has been viewed more than 14.5 million times.

Andrew Johnson wrestling on February 5, 2018 in a match for his school Buena HS.David Gard for NJ Advance Media

The incident Wednesday night has drawn condemnation from New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, film director Ava DuVernay, Olympic wrestler Jordan Burroughs and the state ACLU, among others.

The state Attorney General's Office told NBC News on Sunday that the Division of Civil Rights is investigating because the potential bias incident involves a referee with the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, which oversees high school sports.

The director of the high-school athletic association said his organization "takes this matter very seriously."

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"I ask that everyone respect the investigatory process related to all parties involved,” the director, Larry White, said.

Referee Alan Maloney forced high school wrestler Andrew Johnson to cut his dreadlocks during a match.NJ Advance Media

"I clearly understand the issues at play, and probably better than most," said White, who said he spoke as "an African-American and parent," as well as a former educator, coach, official and athlete.

He also said the referee will not be assigned any matches until the review is complete.

At the match Wednesday, the student wrestler was told that his hair and headgear were not compliant with regulation and would have to instantly cut his long locks or forfeit the round, according to a statement Friday from the Buena Regional School District.

Mike Frankel, the reporter whose tweet of video of the incident went viral, said on Twitter that as Johnson’s coaches argued about the referee’s ruling, the injury-time clock was started, at which point Johnson agreed to have his hair cut.

Johnson went on to win the match in sudden-victory overtime.

Gov. Murphy said Saturday that he was "deeply disturbed" by the video.

"No student should have to needlessly choose between his or her identity and playing sports," Murphy said on Twitter.

Burroughs, a 2012 Olympic gold medalist and four-time world champion, described the incident as “nonsense” in social media posts.

"My opinion is that this was a combination of an abuse of power, racism, and just plain negligence," Burroughs said Saturday.

The Olympian also said that he has wrestled for 25 years, at every level, and has never witnessed a person be required to have a haircut during a match.

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.