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Referee who forced N.J. wrestler to cut dreadlocks alleges 'emotional distress'

The referee claims he "properly performed his duties" in requiring the wrestler to cut his dreadlocks at a match — a claim disputed by a lawyer for the athlete's family.
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A referee who forced a New Jersey high school wrestler to cut his dreadlocks or forfeit a match in December has taken the first step toward filing a lawsuit alleging defamation of character and emotional distress.

Alan Maloney, who is white, claims in a legal filing that he "properly performed his duties as the referee and fairly applied the rules governing a wrestling match" when he ordered Andrew Johnson, a black varsity wrestler from Atlantic County to cut his hair before a match.

A video of the haircut went viral and drew widespread condemnation, including from New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, Olympic wrestler Jordan Burroughs and the state ACLU.

It showed Johnson looking dejected as a trainer from his school, Buena Regional High, sheared his dreadlocks. The state's Civil Rights Division and its interscholastic athletic association started separate investigations into the incident.

In the legal filing dated March 6 and sent to more than a dozen defendants this month — including the borough of Buena, its high school and school district, and the New Jersey Attorney General and New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association — Maloney lists his injuries, damages or losses as defamation of character, loss of income and emotional distress.

Maloney defended his actions in the filing, saying Johnson's hair and headgear were not compliant with regulation at the match. They are his first public remarks about the incident.

Buena school officials said after the match and the response to the video that Maloney would no longer referee any meets involving its athletes and the state interscholastic athletic association barred him from officiating at meets pending the outcome of the two investigations.

An attorney for the Johnson family said any plans Maloney has to file a claim as a victim in the incident is "outright absurd."

“His description of events misstates the facts and the applicable rules, both of which show that Andrew should have been permitted to wrestle — just as he did four days earlier — without a hair covering, without having to first cut his hair, and without Maloney’s unjustified interference," Dominic Speziali said in a statement.

The haircut prompted claims of racism. Film director Ava DuVernay was among those to ask whether it showed a racial bias against Johnson and other black athletes who wear their hair in natural styles.

Maloney is seeking $100,000 in damages.