Amid the bustle of a seven-team wrestling tournament at Gloucester City High School, Absegami wrestling coach Shawn Scannell spoke softly, considering his words, about a recent incident in which a Buena wrestler was forced to cut his hair or forfeit a match.
“It’s an unfortunate situation for our sport,” Scannell said Saturday. “Just from the information I gathered and heard, it was something that probably could’ve been avoided.”
The incident made national headlines and drew reactions from notable figures ranging from Gov. Phil Murphy to Chance the Rapper.
“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,” Murphy tweeted. “No student should have to needlessly choose between his or her identity and playing sports.”
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
Winslow Township High School alumnus Jordan Burroughs, a 2012 Olympic gold medalist and four-time world champion, tweeted early Saturday about the incident, saying he had never seen anything like it in a quarter-century of wrestling.
The Chiefs’ Johnson was given an ultimatum by referee Alan Maloney before a 120-pound bout Wednesday against rival Oakcrest — either cut off his thick, dark brown dreadlocks or forfeit the match.
Maloney did not respond to requests for comment Saturday from The Press. A woman answering the phone at a listed number for Maloney told The Associated Press the ordeal was being blown out of proportion and the referee was simply following rules.
A thread: I'm sure a lot of you have heard about the young man who was forced to cut his hair during a wrestling match in order to avoid being disqualified. That young man is Andrew Johnson of Buena High School in New Jersey. Let me start off by saying, I commend Andrew for— Jordan Burroughs (@alliseeisgold) December 22, 2018
The incident was recorded and shared on Twitter by SNJ Today Sports Director Mike Frankel. The video quickly went viral.
The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association on Saturday issued a statement confirming state authorities are investigating the incident in concert with the Division on Civil Rights. Additionally, Maloney will not be assigned to any matches until the matter has been reviewed.
“As an African-American and parent — as well as a former educator, coach, official and athlete — I clearly understand the issues at play, and probably better than most. The NJSIAA takes this matter very seriously, and I ask that everyone respect the investigatory process related to all parties involved,” NJSIAA Executive Director Larry White said in the statement.
According to the rules of the National Federation of State High School Associations, a wrestler’s hair “shall extend no lower than the top of an ordinary shirt collar in the back, shall not extend lower than earlobe level on the sides, and shall not extend below the eyebrows in the front.
Video of a referee ordering a Buena Regional High School wrestler to cut his hair before com…
“Hair that does not conform to the rule shall be contained in a legal hair covering or the wrestler shall not compete. For hair coverings to be legal they must be worn under the headgear, or be part of the headgear, and be of a solid material that is not abrasive.”
“When I first saw it, I was kind of shocked,” Absegami wrestler Nick Carrero, 17, of Galloway, said of the video. “But if that’s the rule, that’s the rule. But it could’ve been done in the locker room so it wouldn’t have been so embarrassing for the kid. It is a hard situation.”
Some said the act was more than just enforcing a rule.
“Very disappointing and totally uncalled for,” said parent Kimberley Chandler, 48, of Burlington Township. “Females can wrestle now and they don’t have to cut their hair, but he never had to before and it was without his parents’ consent.”
Johnson wrestled twice last Saturday at the Robin Leff Tournament at Southern Regional.
Does anyone know the full name of Andrew Johnson’s school? Yes, to referee pressure. Absolutely. But I want to explore the school officials on-site, mainly the coaches, that allowed this to happen to a minor.— Ava DuVernay (@ava) December 21, 2018
“It’s a shame what happened, period,” said parent Jim Higgins, 60, of Washington Township. “It could’ve been racially motivated (Johnson is black, Maloney is white), but I hate to pass judgment on people. He (Maloney) could’ve been just doing his job, so I hate to jump to conclusions.”
Maloney was accused of uttering a racial slur at another referee in 2016 at a private gathering, according to the Courier-Post.
Scannell said he has known Maloney a long time and that Maloney officiated many Absegami matches. The eight-year coach said Maloney “goes by the book.”
“Listening to others, it’s unfortunate,” Scannell said, “but it seems the rule was implemented. Ultimately, the problem that arises is not all referees follow that protocol. So a lot of times, you get away with it because the ref doesn’t want to be the bad guy and say you can’t wrestle.”
Scannell said he knows and adheres to the rules, and makes sure his players are all properly equipped and groomed before jogging on the mat. Scannell said all coaches need to make sure their players are “legal.”
“It’s being spun in a pretty terrible way,” Scannell said. “I know he had some issues in the past, but I don’t think that was the motivation here. In a sport we are trying to grow, it’s not a good look. People that don’t understand the sport can be nasty, but at the end of the day he was doing his job and enforcing the rules.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.