The attorney for a 16-year-old Buena Regional High School wrestler forced to cut his dreadlocks or forfeit a match last month wants the state to investigate “an unrelenting fixation” on the wrestler’s hair.
Dominic Speziali, the attorney for junior wrestler Andrew Johnson, said Wednesday’s match between Buena and Absegami was postponed after a referee said Johnson would not be able to compete without covering for his hair.
Buena school officials could not be reached for comment on why Wednesday’s match was canceled.
Speziali outlined his charge and complaints in a Thursday letter to Estelle Bronstein, assistant director of the state Division on Civil Rights.
In the letter, the attorney said a referee contacted Buena during the day Wednesday and without seeing Johnson said he could not compete without a head cover.
Speziali said Johnson wrestled four times this past weekend in a Williamstown tournament without a head cover.
Speziali said the Absegami match was “abruptly canceled without explanation, and to the dismay of Andrew and conceivably his teammates, who, like all wrestlers, must prepare and sacrifice in the lead up to every match.”
Absegami athletic director and Cape-Atlantic League President Steve Fortis said Buena athletic director Dave Albertson called him Wednesday morning and told him he had to postpone the match.
The event was a non-conference CAL matchup. Absegami is in the CAL American Conference, while Buena is in the CAL National. Fortis said because it is a non-conference matchup it does not have to be rescheduled, under league rules.
Wednesday’s canceled match is the latest in a saga that began Dec. 19 and has become a national story.
Referee Alan Maloney allegedly would not allow Johnson to compete with a cover over his hair. Maloney reportedly said Johnson either had to have his hair cut or forfeit his match.
Maloney is white, and Johnson is black.
Larry White, executive director of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, said Wednesday the organization is investigating the Dec. 19 incident. The NJSIAA, which governs most New Jersey high school sports, also referred the matter to the Division on Civil Rights.
White said Maloney has not officiated an NJSIAA match since Dec. 19. Neither Johnson nor Maloney has commented publicly on the matter.
Video of the Buena trainer cutting Johnson’s dreadlocks went viral. It was later shown on TMZ.com, SI.com and other websites. Commenters — including notable figures such as Chance the Rapper, director Ava DuVernay and Gov. Phil Murphy — were outraged by what they regarded as an act of overt racism.
It has also started a national debate on how long a high school wrestler’s hair can be.
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.
“Hair that does not conform to the rule shall be contained in a legal hair covering, or the wrestler shall not be allowed to 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.”
Elliott Hopkins, director of sports, sanctioning and student services for the national federation, said in a Wednesday memo to the NJSIAA that the hair rule has been in place since 1966.
Hopkins said the national rule is based on the length, not style, of a wrestler’s hair.
White said Thursday in a statement the NFHS interpretation will serve as the NJSIAA’s official understanding of the rule. White said any future questions will be made in close coordination with the NFHS.
Meanwhile, Speziali said Johnson and his Buena teammates want nothing more than to return to what life was like before Dec. 19.
“Yet, it appears for the reasons that the Division can hopefully soon unmask,” the attorney wrote, “that certain officials have a desire to unnecessarily escalate and prolong this ordeal due to an unrelenting fixation on the hair of a 16-year-old (boy) that asked for absolutely none of this.”
Buena’s next match is 4 p.m. Friday at Timber Creek.