It’s been three weeks since Buena Regional High School wrestler Andrew Johnson was given 90 seconds to decide whether to have his dreadlocks cut or forfeit his match, and his hair is still stirring controversy.
On Wednesday, a meet at Buena with Absegami High School was abruptly canceled after the referee said Johnson would not be allowed to compete without a covering for his hair, his lawyer said Thursday.
In a three-page letter to the Division on Civil Rights, attorney Dominic Speziali detailed new allegations about backlash from the growing controversy and asked the agency to investigate what he described as an “unrelenting fixation” on Johnson’s hair.
The fallout from the Dec. 19 haircut has caused upheaval in the wrestling community, amid charges of racism that have left state athletic officials scrambling to enforce an old rule about hair among a new generation that wears different styles. There are also allegations that Johnson is now being targeted by referees.
Johnson, 16, a junior, was put in the spotlight after a referee said his hair was too long. Johnson was given a choice: Cut or cover his hair, or forfeit the match. A video shows him getting his hair cut. The incident has prompted several investigations.
There has been concern that some referees have not strictly enforced the hair covering rule, and that has caused some confusion, said Larry White, executive director of the New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association, which oversees high school athletics.
“You have the rule there in black and white," said White. “But you still have the element of interpretation.”
The controversy has put the Buena wrestling program, among the top small-school programs South Jersey, in a precarious position. The 3-0 Chiefs' next competition is Friday, in a quad meet at Timber Creek High School in Erial.
Buena superintendent David Cappuccio Jr. said the team plans to “re-engage in competition immediately."
In a statement Thursday, Cappuccio confirmed details outlined by Speziali. The district postponed Wednesday’s meet while awaiting clarification from the National Federation of State High School Associations, which governs scholastic athletics, on the hair-covering rule, he said.
“I was not willing to allow our student athletes to be subjected to any potential dispute, embarrassment, or misapplication of the rule,” Cappuccio said.
Speziali said the referee assigned to Wednesday’s meet contacted Buena officials prior to its scheduled start to advise ”that he planned to require Andrew to wear a hair covering.”
The referee, who was not identified, made the decision “without even seeing Andrew,” Speziali said.
Some officials say the referee may have been overly cautious in light of the attention surrounding Johnson.
According to rules outlined by the national association that oversees high school wrestling, a covering is required if hair extends below the eyebrows, earlobes, or neckline. The covering, similar to a cap, must attach to the ear guards worn by all wrestlers.
Cappuccio said the district received the clarification it needed late Wednesday. The federation, in a memo sent to all New Jersey referees and athletic officials, said the rule “is solely based on length, not on style” of a wrestler’s hair.
Several South Jersey wrestling coaches say they have not had any issues with the hair cover rule. Many carry the regulation head covering, even though there are no wrestlers on their teams with dreadlocks. The rule applies to any long hair.
“I have had officials in the past question the ‘natural state’ of my wrestlers' hair. Ultimately, it came down to length; too long, then wear the cap,” said Pennsauken High School wrestling coach Steve Wallace
Johnson wrestled for the first time since the incident in a tournament on Saturday. That, too, had some hair controversy, his attorney said.
Speziali said there was a mix-up about whether Johnson needed a hair covering, but it was resolved and he competed without it.
In the letter to Estelle Bronstein, assistant director of the state civil rights agency, Speziali alleged that Johnson has been targeted by other referees since the encounter with Alan Maloney, the white official who first raised questions about the length of his hair.
After missing weigh-ins for the Dec. 19 meet, Maloney made Johnson shave, but made no mention of the length of his hair, Speziali said. When Johnson was told that he needed a covering, he grabbed a cap from the locker room, he said.
Johnson and his opponent approached the center of the mat, where Maloney inspected Johnson’s cap, the attorney said.
“He can’t wrestle with this. It’s illegal,” Maloney told the coaches, according to Speziali.
Buena coaches argued that Johnson had competed the previous weekend without a cap because his hair was not “overly long,” Speziali said.
But Maloney responded, “Length is not the issue. It’s unnatural,” the attorney said.
A directive sent on Monday by Roy Dragon, an executive council member of the New Jersey Wrestling Officials Association, seeking to clarify the hair covering rules, may have sparked the latest incident involving Johnson, Speziali said.