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Buena wrestler’s forced haircut leads to new discrimination guidelines

Updated: 5 days ago

An investigation into a referee who forced a Buena Regional High School wrestler to cut his hair or forfeit the match has led to his suspension and new state guidelines. Andrew Johnson, then 15, was ready to wrestle at a tournament in December, when referee Alan Maloney told him a hair covering wasn’t enough to wrestle with his braids. The teen was then given 90 seconds to decide whether to cut his hair or forfeit. He reluctantly agreed to the impromptu haircut, which garnered national attention after then-SNJ Today sports reporter Mike Frankel tweeted about Johnson’s sacrifice.

Epitome of a team player ⬇️ A referee wouldn't allow Andrew Johnson of Buena @brhschiefs to wrestle with a cover over his dreadlocks. It was either an impromptu haircut, or a forfeit. Johnson chose the haircut, then won by sudden victory in OT to help spark Buena to a win. pic.twitter.com/f6JidKNKoI — Mike Frankel (@MikeFrankelJSZ) December 20, 2018

Many called the Maloney, who is white, racist. Johnson is black An investigation by the Division of Civil Rights has now resulted in an agreement between DCR and the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association that includes suspending Maloney for the next two wrestling seasons. There will also be bias training for officials and staff involved in high school athletics across the state. Along with Attorney General Gurbir Grewal’s announcement came an eight-page police titled, “Guidance on Race Discrimination Based on Hairstyle,” which explains that treating people differently due to their hairstyle may violate the state’s anti-discrimination laws. Discrimination on the basis of race includes discrimination based on a trait “inextricably intertwined with or closely associated with race,” including hairstyle, the guide reads. It also clarifies that policies that ban, limit or restrict hairstyles closely associated with being black or having black ancestry—including twists and locs—may violate New Jersey law. “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. The Division on Civil Rights’ action today makes it less likely that any student athlete will have to endure discrimination that not only undermines fair competition but also violates our state laws.” hairstyle-guidance

Grewal commended the NJSIAA for their cooperation, “and for working collaboratively with DCR to ensure equal treatment of all student-athletes.”  As part of the resolution of its investigation, DCR has entered into a Memorandum of Agreement, or MOA, with the NJSIAA. The NJSIAA is a private, non-profit organization that administers education-based interscholastic athletics across New Jersey and whose members include 437 high schools. “Discrimination against black people because of their hair, which is often based on stereotypes that traditionally Black hairstyles are ’unprofessional‘ or  ’unkempt,’ is a persistent form of anti-black racism,” DCR Director Rachel Wainer Apter said. “This guidance makes clear that employers, housing providers and places of public accommodation cannot police Black hair. And the MOA will ensure that high school athletes across the State can focus on being their best, not worrying that their hair will subject them to differential treatment based on race. We are grateful to the NJSIAA for their hard work on this agreement.” The MOA details the results of parallel investigations by DCR and the NJSIAA, including interviews with Johnson, Maloney, the NJSIAA Rules Interpreter, NJSIAA officials, members of the New Jersey Wrestling Officials Association and the Rules Interpreter for the National Federation of State High School Associations, which develops and publishes the rules for high school wrestling across the country, among others. The rule Maloney cited at the time of the incident governs the length of an athlete’s hair and when an athlete must wear a hair cover. However, that rule was previously interpreted by various New Jersey wrestling officials to require a hair covering for several traditionally black hairstyles regardless of hair length, Grewal said. As part of the agreement between DCR and NJSIAA, the NJSIAA has agreed to provide in-person training to all of its local Rules Interpreters and to all wrestling officials in the state emphasizing that Rule 4.2.1 is based solely on hair length, not on hair style.  The training, which will be completed before the start of this year’s wrestling season, will also explain the long history of discrimination based on hair style.

In addition, by the end of the 2020-2021 school year, NJSIAA will provide implicit bias training to all high school sports officials in New Jersey and will require NJSIAA member schools to provide such training to all athletic administrators, coaches and athletic trainers who work in high school sports.

DCR will collaborate with NJSIAA on the trainings.

“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 MOA states. “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 hair cover was required.”

The guidance also clarifies that New Jersey law generally prohibits employers, housing providers and places of public accommodation (including schools) in New Jersey from enforcing grooming or appearance policies that ban, limit, or restrict hairstyles closely associated with being Black, including, but not limited to, twists, braids, cornrows, Afros, locs, Bantu knots, and fades.

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