The parents of a Black high school wrestler who was forced to choose between cutting off his dreadlocks or forfeiting a match have spoken out and said they blame the entire incident on the white referee.
Last week, Buena Regional High School wrestler Andrew Johnson (above center) was seen getting his dreadlocks cut off by his wrestling trainer in an emotional viral video. After the video, some blamed the school’s coaches and his teammates for not sticking up for Johnson; however, his family and their attorneys say the only person at fault was the ref, Alan Maloney, reported NBC 10.
“As this matter is further investigated, the family wants to be clear that they are supportive of Andrew’s coaches and the team’s athletic trainer,” Dominic A. Speziali, of Philadelphia-based J. Fine Law Group, told NBC 10 Philadelphia on behalf of Rosa and Charles Johnson Monday.
"The blame here rests primarily with the referee and those that permitted him to continue in that role despite clear evidence of what should be a disqualifying race-related transgression,” he added.
According to Johnson’s family, Buena's coaching staff did argue on behalf of their son before the camera started rolling.
"Andrew was visibly shaken after he and his coaches made every effort to satisfy the referee short of having his hair cut," the family statement said. "But, as captured on video, the unyielding referee gave Andrew 90 seconds to either forfeit his match or cut his hair. Under duress but without any influence from the coaching staff or the athletic trainer, Andrew decided to have his hair cut rather than forfeit the match."
In the video, fans and coaches watch an official cut off Johnson's dreadlocks with a pair of scissors before he is allowed to compete.
According to Speziali, Maloney told Andrew his hair "wasn't in its natural state" and the ref called his dreadlocks “braids.”
In the end, Andrew chose to have his dreadlocks cut and did not penalize his teammates for Maloney’s horrific ultimatum. He won the match, which resulted in his school winning the wrestling tournament. However, after his win, Andrew appeared visibly distraught and broken, as if he lost anyway.
After the video, the American Civil Liberties Union's New Jersey chapter tweeted, "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?"
On Friday, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association said it was conducting an investigation and had contacted Buena Regional High School officials and the referee involved in the incident.
Michael Cherenson, spokesman for the association, said the organization had reached out to groups that assign referees "and they've all agreed" not to assign Maloney to any event until further notice.
The association also said it was forwarding preliminary information to the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights and that "given the degree of attention being focused on this matter," it would recommend that the referee not be assigned to any event until the incident "has been reviewed more thoroughly."
Additionally, Maloney was not present during weigh-in on the day of the match and arrived at the tournament late. When he finally showed up, Maloney evaluated the teen before the match and said nothing about his hair. It wasn’t until moments before the match that Maloney said his hair could not be covered or pulled back. While the trainer cut Andrew’s hair, Maloney looked on and did not let them stop cutting until he was satisfied.
The Johnsons credited wrestling for helping Johnson through this situation.
“Wrestling has taught Andrew to be resilient in the face of adversity," Rosa and Charles said. "As we move forward, we are comforted by both the strength of Andrew’s character and the support he’s received from the community. We will do all that we can to make sure that no student-athlete is forced to endure what Andrew experienced.”
(Photo: NBC 10 Philadelphia)