Andrew Johnson stood at the side of the mat, shoulders slumped forward, as teammates from Buena Regional High School stepped up one at a time with a high five and some encouragement.
“Don’t worry about it,” one said, putting his hands on Johnson’s shoulders as a team athletic trainer stood behind the wrestler, shearing off his hair.
Johnson wore thick, dark brown dreadlocks to a meet Wednesday against rival Oakcrest, another one of the top wrestling teams in southern New Jersey. But before the 120-pound bout could begin, the referee gave Johnson a choice: Forfeit the match or get a quick haircut to comply with athletic regulations.
Johnson opted to get his haircut instead of forfeiting the match, which he later won in sudden-victory overtime.
But a video posted of the black teenager getting his dreadlocks cut before the match prompted anger and frustration. Mike Frankel, the reporter whose video of the incident went viral, explained that as Johnson’s coaches argued the referee’s ruling, the injury time clock was started, which was when Johnson agreed to have his haircut.
To many, the episode was yet another example of the ways that racial bias manifests itself over seemingly personal issues such as hairstyles, one data point among many about the ways in which minorities are treated differently than white people.
The fallout prompted state investigators to open a probe into the matter, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) said in a statement, in a joint effort with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights.
The involved referee will not be assigned any matches until the review is complete, NJIAA executive director Larry White said.
In a personal moment unusual for public statements, White said he spoke as “as an African-American and parent — as well as a former educator, coach, official and athlete” struck by the racial and social undertones.
“I clearly understand the issues at play, and probably better than most. The NJSIAA takes this matter very seriously,” he said.
NJSIAA spokeswoman Sharon Lauchaire said the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights opened an investigation Friday into the incident under a 2013 agreement with the NJSIAA about incidents of potential bias in high school sports.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy tweeted Saturday that he was “deeply disturbed” by the incident.
“No student should have to needlessly choose between his or her identity & playing sports,” Murphy wrote.
Sports broadcaster Taylor Rooks also keyed on the racial aspect of an incident was one of “terrible discrimination.”
“The ref should be ashamed,” she wrote on Twitter. “In the black community, hair is often tied to identity. Expressing disapproval of the hair is in many ways expressing disapproval of the person.”
The referee was identified in news reports as Alan Maloney, who drew news media coverage in 2016 after a dispute with a black referee. The referee said at the time that Maloney, who is white, called him the N-word during an argument, an accusation which Maloney said he did not remember, but did not dispute, according to the South Jersey newspaper the Courier-Post.
Maloney did not respond to a message left for him on a number listed in public records.
“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 of New Jersey said in a statement. “This was discrimination, and it’s not OK.”
The National Federation of State High School Associations dictates the rules for high school wrestling matches. One of its new points of emphasis for wrestling officials this year is to ensure all equipment worn on the mat, including hair coverings, fits “snug” to a wrestler’s body.
Johnson was reportedly wearing a hair covering, but it was not clear whether it was in compliance with the body’s new rules. He had wrestled without incident before the match, the Courier-Post reported.