A New Jersey high school student whose dreadlocks were lopped off after he was forced to choose between forfeiting a wrestling match or cutting his hair, is still being scrutinized about his hairstyle, according to the teen’s attorney.
NBC reports that Buena High School student Andrew Johnson is still getting grief about his recently shortened hair from high school wrestling officials, causing at least one match to be canceled. Dominic Speziali, Johnson’s lawyer, says the controversy is the result of an “unrelenting fixation” on the young athlete.
Speziali wrote a letter to the New Jersey Commission on Civil Rights saying that Johnson initially took a break from wrestling after referee Alan Maloney ignited a firestorm by giving the 16-year-old an ultimatum, to either cut his dreadlocks or forfeit the December 20 match. Johnson was visibly upset as he allowed a trainer to publicly shear his dreadlocks rather than burdening his team with the loss. Maloney had previously been accused of using the n-word at a social gathering of officials in 2016.
Speziali said that Johnson wanted the commotion from the incident to die down, but that the teenager continues to face scrutiny over his hair. In Johnson’s first match since his self-imposed hiatus, his locs were once again the subject of debate when a different referee told Johnson he would have to cover his hair.
When Johnson’s mother asked why, she was told that there was “some confusion” and it was another wrestler who needed to wear a covering, not Andrew.
“However, no wrestler for Buena or Buena’s first opponent wore any type of hair covering,” Speziali wrote, adding that “Andrew wrestled in four matches without wearing a hair covering and without any referee raising an issue about his hair.”
The following Monday, out of nowhere, Roy Dragon, a New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association wrestling official and an executive council member of the New Jersey Wrestling Officials Association, sent an email out with pictures attached showing which kinds of hairstyles required head coverings. NJ.com said one of the images featured this picture:
But Elliott Hopkins, the director of sports, sanctioning and student services for the National Federation of State High School Associations, the governing that comes up with the rules for high school wrestling, told NJ.com that the hairstyle depicted in the email would not require a covering:
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 legal hair cover, according to the NFHS. In addition, if the hair is longer than allowed, it must be contained in a legal hair cover that is attached to the ear guards.
Hopkins said Tuesday braided or dreadlocked hair that does not extend below the earlobe or eyebrows or touch the top of a shirt does not need to be covered.
“The rule is based on length, not style,” Hopkins said. “Our rule is not a style rule. Our rule is a length rule.”
Finally, the day before Johnson was set to compete in his next match on Wednesday, a referee took it upon himself to notify the Buena team that Johnson would have to wear a hair covering if he planned on wrestling. Pictures of Johnson’s hair at the Jan. 5 match shows it does not appear to be long enough to require a hair covering. When questions were raised, the match was “abruptly canceled.”
“Yet it appears, for reasons that the Division can hopefully soon unmask, that certain officials have a desire to unnecessarily escalate and prolong this ordeal due on an unrelenting fixation on the hair of a 16-year-old young man that asked for absolutely none of this,” Speziali wrote.
No one seems to be able to clearly enunciate what the problem is with Johnson’s hair. Instead, officials seem to have decided that he is in violation of the rules, in spite of what the actual rulebook says.
The state had already opened a civil rights investigation into the matter and Buena School District superintendent pledged to “support and stand by” all of its student-athletes.