Buena Regional High School wrestler Andrew Johnson‘s return to his home turf Wednesday for his first match at the South Jersey school since a controversy about his dreadlocks touched off a firestorm has been postponed.
The highly anticipated bout against Absegami High School at Buena’s gym was abruptly canceled hours before the match and will be held at a later date, said Buena athletic director Dave Albertson. A reason was not given and he declined further comment.
”I’m not at liberty to say,” Albertson said.
The Buena Chiefs are next scheduled to compete on Friday at 4 p.m. at Timber Creek High School in Erial in Camden County.
Johnson, 16, a junior, was thrust into the national spotlight after he decided to have his dreadlocks cut to avoid forfeiting a match Dec. 19. A video captured a distraught Johnson standing on the gym floor as a trainer cut several inches of his hair.
The public shearing ignited outrage and allegations of racism. Johnson is biracial and Alan Maloney, the referee who said Johnson’s hair was too long, is white. The incident is under investigation by the state Division on Civil Rights at the request of the association that governs scholastic athletics. Maloney has been suspended by state athletic officials pending the outcome.
This is the second time a Buena varsity match has been canceled. An away match at St. Joseph’s in Hammonton was postponed a week ago due to “mat problems.”
Civil rights groups from around the state, which have called for Maloney’s ouster as an official, had planned to attend Wednesday’s match.
”When it comes to Andrew, we want to support him and let him and his family know that we’re paying attention to this and we’re not going to let it be swept under the rug,” said Walter Hudson, founder of the Salem County-based National Awareness Alliance. ”No other child should experience what Andrew experienced. ”
Johnson competed for the first time since the incident on Saturday in an eight-team tournament at Williamstown High School. He went 1-3 in four bouts. He wrestled with a headgear but no covering on his thin brown dreadlocks. It was unclear whether Johnson had to make any adjustments during the pre-inspection with the referees before the match.
Since the Dec. 19 incident, debate has swirled about whether Maloney acted appropriately and whether the hair-cutting had racial overtones. Details are still emerging about how the circumstances unfolded.
The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, which oversees high school athletics, announced Wednesday that it also is investigating the incident.
In an earlier development, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund announced on Monday that it has submitted an open public records request asking the NJSIAA to turn over information regarding polices and investigations into any alleged student athlete discrimination incidents based on race or hair in light of the Buena case.
The civil rights group said it was “working to eliminate the practice of hair policies serving as pretexts and justifications for racial discrimination in schools and workplaces.”
Meanwhile, the National Federation of State High Schools Association based in Indianapolis on Wednesday issued a clarification of the hair-covering rule at the request of New Jersey officials. There has been concern that some referees have not enforced the rule as strictly as Maloney.
In a memo distributed to wrestling officials and schools, B. Elliot Hopkins, national wrestling rules interpreter for the organization, noted that the hair rule dates back to the 1960s and has been modified over the last several decades. Wrestlers must be clean-shaven with sideburns trimmed no longer than earlobe level and hair well-trimmed and well-groomed, he wrote.
According to the rules, if the hair is longer than allowed, it can be braided or rolled if it’s contained in a cover that is attached to the ear guards wrestlers typically wear during a match.
“There is a wide spectrum of modern hair styles that might give the appearance that they are in violation of the hair rule, but in actuality they are just creative expressions of today’s youth, “ Hopkins wrote. “We interpret hair ‘in its natural state’ is how your hair appears when you wake up in the morning. Please understand that our rule is solely based on length, not style.”
Johnson’s attorney, Dominic Speziali of Philadelphia, said he believes Johnson’s hair met the regulations.
Maloney has been officiating for more than 40 years and has a reputation as a stickler for the rules. His defenders say that Maloney was simply enforcing rules, that Johnson should have been equipped with the proper head covering, and that they would have made the same call.
In 2016, Maloney was at the center of another controversy when he was confronted by a black referee after allegedly using a racial slur at a social gathering with sports officials. He later apologized and was ordered to attend sensitivity training.