The mother of a New Jersey high school wrestler forced by a referee to get his hair cut or forfeit a match said it was a “brutal” experience for her son and that the incident was painful for her to watch. Meanwhile, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) and the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights issued a joint statement Saturday, announcing they would open a probe into the incident.
“Hardest thing I’ve ever seen,” wrote Rose Santiago-Johnson, the mother of Buena Regional HS junior Andrew Johnson, on Facebook, according to The New York Post. “He is good now … but that was brutal emotionally and physically.”
Santiago-Johnson was responding to a friend’s comment on her Facebook page. The friend, Jaden Roberts, inquired about Johnson before asking Santiago-Johnson to relay to him that “we are all SO PROUD of him! He put his teammates first and that speaks volumes!!!! Drew was the true MVP tonight. He did an amazing job Mom! Way to go, Drew!”
Roberts framed her comment the way the media initially did – applauding Johnson as a “team player” for agreeing to allow his athletic trainer to cut his dreadlocks in order to be eligible for the match, in which he later won. Alan Maloney, the referee who ordered the cut, said his call was in keeping with athletic requirements regarding the length of a wrestler’s hair. Others have since blasted Maloney for allegedly exhibiting racial bias in his decision, pointing to racist incidents in the referee’s past, including news reports of a dispute with a black referee in 2016. The referee, Preston Hamilton, said at the time that Maloney, who is white, called him a racial slur during an argument, according to the South Jersey newspaper The Courier-Post.
According to The New York Post, Maloney apologized to Hamilton. “It was two men, a group of guys, having fun and it was just a slip-up,” Maloney told the Courier Post in 2016, according to the New York Post. “If you can’t see past that, then I don’t know what to say. I made a mistake and I apologized for it. And it was accepted.”
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy tweeted Saturday that he was “deeply disturbed” by the haircut incident. “No student should have to needlessly choose between his or her identity & playing sports,” Murphy wrote.
Deeply disturbed that Andrew Johnson, a student at Buena Regional H.S., was forced to choose between keeping his dreadlocks and competing in a wrestling tournament. No student should have to needlessly choose between his or her identity & playing sports. https://t.co/xfrXrpHpov
— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) December 22, 2018
The ACLU of New Jersey also spoke out against the referee’s ultimatum. “This is not about hair. This is about race. How many different ways will people try to exclude Black people from public life without having to declare their bigotry?” the ACLU said in a statement. “This was discrimination, and it’s not okay.”
Buena Regional High School issued a statement that Maloney would no longer be allowed to officiate their wrestling matches, although an online petition with 4,000 signatures is asking that Maloney be ousted as a referee permanently.