The story of black South Jersey high school wrestler Andrew Johnson being forced by a white referee to choose between forfeiting his dreadlocks or one of the biggest matches of the year has aroused furor online since the incident last Wednesday.
Celebrities, activists, and everyday Twitter users pointed to the video of a white woman from the Buena Regional High School wrestling staff cutting Andrew’s locks as an egregious example of the subversive racism black people face every day in America.
Even Jordan Burroughs, a 2012 Olympic Gold medalist and four-time world champion, posted on social media early Saturday about the incident, saying he had never seen anything like it in his quarter-century of wrestling.
“This is nonsense,” he said on Twitter. “My opinion is that this was a combination of an abuse of power, racism, and just plain negligence.” In a video posted on Instagram, he criticized parents and coaching staff at the match for not intervening, calling it “absolutely shameful.”
At first, Johnson’s eldest brother, Charles Johnson, Jr., didn’t see it that way.
“I just felt like it was wrong,” he said in a phone interview. “He shouldn’t have had to cut his hair or anything just because of a wrestling match.”
But then he learned that referee Alan Maloney had previously been accused of racism. In 2016, Maloney found himself in hot water for using a racial slur toward another official at a party during a dispute over homemade wine.
Now, Johnson says he believes a white wrestler under similar circumstances probably would not have been put in that situation.
The 22-year-old was in the stands with his father and grandfather supporting his teenage brother during Wednesday night’s match against conference rival Oakcrest High School when he saw the ordeal that would project Andrew into the national spotlight.
Their father had just been explaining to him that his brother wore “a cap because his hair was a little too long,” Johnson said, when the dispute between Andrew, his coaches, and Maloney, began.
Rules from the National Federation of State High School Associations state that “if an individual has hair longer than allowed by rule, it may be braided or rolled if it is contained in a cover so that the hair rule is satisfied. The legal hair cover shall be attached to the ear guards.”
However, Howie O’Neil, a wrestling referee in the area for more than 40 years, told the Courier Post that relatively new rules state Andrew’s cap needed to be attached to his headgear, which it wasn’t.
“I started talking to my grandfather and I look over and I just see the ref is telling him he couldn’t wear the cap or whatever,” Johnson said. “He told him if he didn’t cut his hair off, he was disqualified.”
Mike Frankel of SNJ Today News tweeted that after some back and forth with the coaches, Maloney started the 90-second injury clock, leaving Andrew with an ultimatum in a high-pressure situation. It was an important conference matchup for Buena’s wrestling season, which had just begun less than one week earlier. Andrew chose to sacrifice his locks for the team.
Johnson says that at one point, his grandfather was “ready to run on the gym floor” and pull the referee and the trainer who cut his hair away.
Frankel tweeted the video that has since gone viral, showing Andrew dejected as his hair was cut, despite words of encouragement from his teammates.
“They just made my brother cut his hair off,” Johnson said in a Snapchat video he shared with WHYY. “That’s crazy as hell. What the f*ck?”
According to Frankel’s report, Andrew wrestled to an overtime victory, although he almost ran out of injury time, in part because of the last-minute haircut.
Johnson says the match was a “good battle,” but afterward, his brother was upset about the humiliating event.
“He was off to the side crying,” Johnson said. “I felt like he was kind of embarrassed that he had to go through that. And after getting his hair cut in front of the whole school, he had to go wrestle his butt off just to win.”
When reached by phone, Andrew’s father, Charles Johnson, Sr., declined to comment and said the family has retained a lawyer.
Larry White, executive director of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Association, said in a statement Saturday that the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights is investigating the incident, and Maloney has been sidelined from officiating any other high school wrestling matches until “the matter has been thoroughly reviewed.”
Johnson says his brother is dealing with the aftermath “pretty good” and that he is annoyed that the haircut overshadowed his win, which helped Buena beat Oakcrest by a score of 41 to 24, giving the team an important victory early in the season.
“Everyone keeps talking about his hair and nothing about his wrestling match — the actual match.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.