A New Jersey high school wrestler had his dreadlocks cut off minutes before his match after a referee told him to lose the hairstyle or forfeit his bout, and video of the sudden haircut has sparked fury.
A South Jersey Today reporter tweeted video of Buena Regional High School wrestler Andrew Johnson getting his hair cut court-side. He went on to win Wednesday's match, but appeared visibly distraught.
Johnson, who is black, had a cover over his hair, but the referee Alan Maloney, who is white, said that wouldn't do.
Reporter Mike Frankel originally tweeted the video with the description, "Epitome of a team player. A referee wouldn't allow Andrew Johnson of Buena to wrestle with a cover over his dreadlocks. It was either an impromptu haircut, or a forfeit. Johnson chose the haircut, then win by sudden victory in OT to help spark Buena to a win."
The tweet immediately sparked backlash.
"No Mike, this is a young black boy who was forced to cut his under under a whim of a white referee who in the past has come under scrutiny for racial comments," replied Charlene J. Fletcher. "He's not the 'epitome of a team player,' he's a child that has just been publicly abused."
"Is it up to the athlete to submit to racially prejudicial rules, and is that the essence of heroism?" responded @JRehling. "It's the referee who's a villain here. That's your headline."
"His hair is part of his identity. He was forced to sacrifice his self. That is unacceptable," tweeted @DrPattyRN.
"No young person should be humiliated and embarrassed in front of his peers like this. This was an effort to break his spirit," said @CamillezLens. "The ref should be fired."
People in the community were equally appalled.
"It's disgusting," said Linda Bauer of Buena.
"The boy is a young kid," said Michael Price of Buena. "He's probably concerned about letting his team down and everything else so he went along with the plan. But no, it's not right."
Johnson's own mother wrote on Facebook it was "the hardest thing I've ever seen. He is good now, but that was brutal, emotionally and physically."
A day after posting the video, the reporter followed up with another tweet aknowledging the reaction to his video.
"Obviously it was naive of me to run with the 'consummate team player' angle," wrote Frankel. "In my mind, it was just the ultimate selfless move from a high school athlete. I know now I missed the bigger picture, and for that I apologize."
"Things an be 'framed' in a number of ways," he continued. "According to many of you, I missed the correct 'framing' here. I understand many of you watch this video and feel strong emotions. I do too. I'd just like to remind you that I didn't cause the action, I documented the action. And my method of delivery fell short in many ways."
The state's Interscholastic Athletic Association says they are recommending Maloney not be assigned to any event until the matter has been reviewed more thoroughly.
The Division on Civil Rights has also opened an investigation into what happened, said Leland Moore, a spokesman for Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal.
News 4 was unable to reach Maloney, but a woman answering the phone at a listed number for Maloney told the AP the ordeal is being blown out of proportion.
The school superintendent said in a letter to the community that they support and stand by all student athletes.
"The student-athlete made the decision to have his hair cut, at that moment, in order to avoid a forfeiture of the match," wrote Superintendent David Cappuccio, adding that school officials reached out to the athletic association afterward. "The district will take appropriate action as more details become available."
Maloney came under fire in 2016 for using a racial slur against a black referee, according to the Courier Post newspaper.
At a private gathering between officials at a condominium, Maloney allegedly poked referee Preston Hamilton, who is black, in the chest and allegedly used a racial slur during an argument over homemade wine. Hamilton slammed Maloney to the ground, according to the Courier Post.
Maloney told the newspaper he did not remember making the comments.
After Hamilton reported the incident, Maloney agreed to participate in sensitivity training and an alcohol awareness program. Maloney was to be suspended for one year for his use of the slur and Hamilton would receive the same suspension for assaulting Maloney. Both officials appealed their suspensions, which were overturned.
Wrestlers are allowed to wear legal hair covers during matches, according to wrestling rules set by the National Federation of State High School Associations. If a wrestler's hair in its natural state extends below the earlobe on the sides or touches the top of a normal shirt, it's required to be secured in a hair cover.
The ACLU of New Jersey tweeted that the incident isn't about hair, but rather about race.
"How many different ways will people try to exclude Black people from public life without having to declare their bigotry?" it reads. "We're so sorry this happened to you, Andrew. This was discrimination, and it's not OK."