The family of New Jersey high school wrestler Andrew Johnson is criticizing the referee who forced him to cut his dreadlocks during a match
Credit: Courtesy of the Johnson Family

After last week’s video of a coach cutting off a black high school student’s dreadlocks went viral, the family of the boy, Andrew Johnson, is criticizing the referee who made the call.

A lawyer for Charles and Rosa Johnson, whose 16-year-old son attends Buena Regional High School in New Jersey, contended in a statement on Monday that the referee was late to the match on Dec. 19 and missed weigh-ins, which the Johnsons said is normally when the determination of any rule violations takes place.

What’s more, “when he did evaluate Andrew, he [the referee] failed to raise any issues with the length of his hair,” the Johnson family’s lawyer Dominic A. Speziali said in the statement, which he released on their behalf.

Andrew had wrestled the weekend before with the same hair style “without issue,” according to his family’s statement, and he had asked to “be allowed to push his hair back as he did the weekend prior, but the referee again refused because ‘it wasn’t in its natural state.’ ”

The referee has reportedly been identified as Alan Maloney. Neither he nor Buena Regional High School officials immediately responded to PEOPLE’s request for comment on Wednesday.

Andrew’s hair covering was rejected just before his match last week. At that point, the referee gave the athlete 90 seconds to either cut his hair or forfeit his match. Video of the incident shows the choice that the “visibly shaken” teen made.

“As the trainer is cutting Andrew’s hair in the middle of the gym, the referee is behind them directing her to keep cutting until he was satisfied with the length,” Speziali explained in the statement.

The Courier Post reports that wrestlers are barred from having hair that goes past their earlobes unless they are wearing a permitted hair cap. Johnson’s cap, however, was not attached to his headgear as required by a fairly recent rules change, according to the paper.

In a statement, the school superintendent said “no school/district staff member influenced the student into making this decision,” the Courier Post reports.

“The staff and administration within the Buena Regional School District will continue to support and stand by all of our students and student-athletes,” the superintendent said. “In collaboration with the NJSIAA and its ongoing investigation in this matter, the district will take appropriate action as more details become available.”

According to CNN, the New Jersey attorney general’s civil rights division is investigating and the referee has been taken off all matches until his actions have been “thoroughly reviewed,” due to the high-profile nature of the incident.

In the statement on Monday, Speziali said the Johnsons are not cutting ties with the wrestling program and “are supportive of Andrew’s coaches and the team’s athletic trainer.” Andrew’s younger brother, Nate, is also on the team and was required to wear a head covering that day, too.

“The blame here rests primarily with the referee and those that permitted him to continue in that role despite clear evidence of what should be a disqualifying race-related transgression,” Speziali asserted, apparently referring to an incident two years ago in which Maloney, the referee, was accused of using a racial slur.

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“As we move forward, we are comforted by both the strength of Andrew’s character and the support he’s received from the community,” his parents said. “We will do all that we can to make sure that no student-athlete is forced to endure what Andrew experienced.”

Multiple professional athletes of color praised Andrew’s response to the incident.

Jordan Burroughs, a four-time world champion and 2012 Olympic champion wrestler, wrote on Twitter: “I’ve been wrestling for 25 years, at every level, and I have never once seen a person required to cut their hair during a match … My opinion is that this was a combination of an abuse of power, racism, and just plain negligence.”

UFC fighter Aljamain Sterling echoed that: “Epitome of overdose on power! Smh. Glad the kid won the match after making such a sacrifice for whatever vendetta the ref had against him, the team, or ‘other’ reasoning. That was NOT OK! Embarrassing.”

According to an October 2016 article in the Courier Post, the referee may have a history of racist behavior.

The Post reports that in March of that year, Maloney allegedly called a black referee, Preston Hamilton, the n-word during a small gathering of a group of officials. Maloney and Hamilton had worked together at a youth tournament earlier that day.

Hamilton told the paper that Maloney poked him in the chest while saying the epithet and, in response, Hamilton slammed him to the ground. Maloney told the outlet that while he didn’t remember the incident — there was alcohol present at the gathering — he agreed with witness accounts of his behavior.

The New Jersey Wrestling Officials Association later ruled that it didn’t have the authority to fire Maloney over what happened. Its president said in a statement at the time: “We’re going to move forward from here and hopefully this thing has been resolved in the back of a lot of people’s minds.”

According to the Post, Maloney volunteered to pay for and participate in both an alcohol awareness and sensitivity training programs as punishment.

Andrew Johnson went on to win last Wednesday’s match and, according to his school’s wrestling calendar, he will play again on Thursday.