The highly anticipated return to competition this week of the Buena Regional High School wrestling team following a controversy involving team member Andrew Johnson’s dreadlocks has been delayed, officials said Wednesday.

The Atlantic County school was scheduled to compete Thursday at St. Joseph’s High School in Hammonton in its first dual wrestling match since a Dec. 19 video of Johnson getting his locks cut minutes before his bout went viral and sparked a fierce debate and outrage by public figures.

St. Joseph’s postponed the match over “mat issues,” Anne Marie Mercado, the school’s athletic director, said Wednesday. The match will be rescheduled for a date to be determined, she added.

The Buena Chiefs are next scheduled to face another Cape Atlantic National League Conference rival, Absegami High School in Galloway Township, next Wednesday at 6 p.m.

It is unclear when Johnson, 16, a junior who has been wrestling since he was 5, will compete again. His attorney has said that Johnson, who wrestles in the 120-pound class, wants to wrestle again. Johnson and his brother Nate, a team member, skipped a holiday tournament last week.

Johnson decided to have his hair cut to avoid forfeiting his bout during a match against Oakcrest High School. Referee Alan Maloney, who was officiating the match, told Johnson that he could not compete with a hair covering for his dark brown locks.

With 90 seconds to make a decision, an anguished-looking Johnson stood on the mat on the gym floor as Buena’s athletic trainer cut several inches of his hair. He went on to win his match, and Buena defeated Oakcrest, 41-24.

The haircutting drew allegations of racism and prompted an investigation by the state Division on Civil Rights. Maloney is white; Johnson is biracial.

Maloney was involved in a controversy in 2016 when he allegedly used a racial slur during a social gathering with referees. He was slammed to the ground by a black referee.

Referee Alan Maloney's defenders say that Andrew Johnson should have had the proper hair covering and that Maloney was merely enforcing the regulations.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Referee Alan Maloney's defenders say that Andrew Johnson should have had the proper hair covering and that Maloney was merely enforcing the regulations.

Maloney, 62, of Berlin Borough, has been sidelined pending the outcome of the investigation. Buena school Superintendent David Cappuccio said last week that he would not allow his school’s athletes to participate in any matches officiated by Maloney.

Dominic Speziali, a Philadelphia attorney who represents Johnson and his family, blames the dispute on Maloney’s tardiness. He said the veteran referee missed the weigh-in when officials typically inspect the wrestlers’ hair, nails, and any special equipment.

Andrew Johnson in a Sept. 30, 2018, photograph. Photo courtesy of the Johnson family.
Courtesy of Johnson family
Andrew Johnson in a Sept. 30, 2018, photograph. Photo courtesy of the Johnson family.

Maloney initially did not raise any concerns about the length of Johnson’s hair or say that he needed to wear a hair covering during the inspection, the lawyer said. Johnson was only told by Maloney to shave the stubble on his chin, he said.

Johnson did not have a headgear with a hair covering because his hair length did not require it, Speziali said. A covering that attaches to the wrestler’s headgear must be worn if the hair extends past the earlobe, eyebrows, or neck, wrestling rules say.

Maloney has not responded to messages seeking comment. His defenders say that Johnson should have had the proper hair covering and that Maloney was merely enforcing the regulations.