BUENA, N.J. — The parents of the 16-year-old black varsity wrestler who was forced to cut his dreadlocks before a match have spoken out for the first time since the incident.
Charles and Rosa Johnson, speaking through their attorney, Dominic A. Speziali, said in a statement that the conduct of the referee who forced their son, Andrew, to cut his hair “appears more egregious as additional information comes to light.”
They allege the referee was late to the meet and didn’t question their son’s hair or the need for a head covering during the initial evaluation.
The referee did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The referee later told Andrew his hair and headgear were not in compliance with league regulations, Speziali said in the statement.
Andrew told the referee he could push his hair back, Speziali said, but the referee refused because Andrew’s hair “wasn’t in its natural state.”
So he gave an ultimatum: Cut the locks or forfeit the match. Andrew chose to have his hair cut instead of forfeiting the match, according to a letter from the school district Superintendent David Cappuccio Jr.
Video of a trainer cutting Andrew’s hair with scissors in the middle of the gym quickly went viral on Friday after it was shared by a reporter from South New Jersey Today.
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
“The referee is behind them directing her to keep cutting until he was satisfied with the length,” Speziali says in the statement.
The wrestler won the match in sudden victory in overtime, according to SNJ Today.
Andrew’s parents said in the statement that wrestling taught him “to be resilient in the face of adversity.”
“As we move forward, we are comforted by both the strength of Andrew’s character and the support he’s received from the community,” they said.
“The blame here rests primarily with the referee,” Speziali says in the statement. “And those that permitted him to continue in that role despite clear evidence of what should be a disqualifying race-related transgression.”
In previous matches in a tournament a week before, Speziali said Andrew wrestled without any issues.
According to the NFHS wrestling rule book, a wrestler’s hair cannot fall below the top of a shirt collar in the back, below his earlobes on the sides or below his eyebrows.
If it is longer than the rule allows, the wrestler has to braid his hair or hide it beneath a hair cover attached to his ear guards, the rule book states.
New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association executive director Larry White said in a statement that state authorities are investigating the incident.
The referee won’t be assigned to moderate matches until the incident “has been thoroughly reviewed,” White said.
“Finally, as an African-American and parent — as well as a former educator, coach, official and athlete — I clearly understand the issues at play, and probably better than most,” White said.
In a statement Friday night, a spokeswoman for the office of New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said its civil rights division opened an investigation into the incident as part of a 2013 agreement with the NJSIAA “to address potential bias in high school sports.”