A New Jersey high school referee who forced a wrestler to cut his dreadlocks to compete in a match has been suspended for two years, following an investigation by the state's Division of Civil Rights.
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal, who announced the findings on Wednesday, said the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association also agreed to mandate implicit-bias training for officials and staff involved in high school athletics across the state.
The investigation began following an incident on Dec. 19, 2018, when Buena High School wrestler Andrew Johnson, who is black, was told by a white referee, Alan Maloney, that he would have to cut off his dreadlocks or forfeit during a meet with Oakcrest High School. Johnson and his coaches initially protested the decision before the wrestler ultimately agreed to the quick haircut.
A team trainer performed the haircut on Johnson, who won his 120-pound match with a takedown in overtime.
Video of the incident went viral, and two days later the executive director of the NJSIAA said the referee in question would not be assigned to any event until the matter had been resolved.
DCR said Wednesday that it issued guidance on race discrimination and noted that treating people differently because of their hairstyle might violate the state's anti-discrimination laws.
"Student-athletes should be able to compete with each other on a level playing field," Grewal said. "Racial discrimination in the enforcement of the rules of any sport is inconsistent with the spirit of fair play."
According to DCR's investigation, the hair-cutting followed a referee's ruling that the wrestler's hair violated NFHS Rule 4.2.1, which governs the length of an athlete's hair and when an athlete must wear a hair cover.
The investigation found that Johnson's dreadlocks were cut after the referee determined that he could not wrestle without a hair cover, and that Johnson was not able to locate a hair cover that met the rule's specifications.
The investigation emphasized that Rule 4.2.1 is based solely on hair length, not on hairstyle.
"Both DCR and the NJSIAA seek to ensure that wrestling officials, coaches and athletic personnel in New Jersey interpret Rule 4.2.1 in a way that does not discriminate against black wrestlers," the organizations said in a joint memorandum of agreement. "In particular, they seek to eliminate any interpretation of Rule 4.2.1 that allowed wrestling officials to determine that traditionally black hairstyles were 'unnatural' or to subject wrestlers with traditionally black hairstyles to differential treatment as to when a haircover was required."
Johnson's attorney, Dominic A. Speziali, applauded the decision Wednesday, calling it a win "not on the mat, but for the progress of civil rights in New Jersey."
"With today's announcement, we hope that no athlete going forward will be forced to sacrifice their identity for the opportunity to compete," Speziali wrote in a statement.