NJSIAA suspends wrestling ref in dreadlocks controversy following joint investigation

Alan Maloney won’t be refereeing a high school wrestling match for at least two years.

That’s part of the findings announced by state Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal and the Division on Civil Rights following an investigation of December incident between the referee and a Buena Regional High School wrestler whose dreadlocks were cut before he could participate in a December match.

The agreement between the DCR and the NJSIAA results in the suspension of Maloney for the next two wrestling seasons and requires that high school officials receive implicit bias training.

NJSIAA Executive Director Larry White said in a statement:

“Today’s Joint Agreement brings an end to our investigation of the December 19, 2018 incident at Buena Regional High School. The NJSIAA Task Force, working cooperatively with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, thoroughly investigated the facts of that day’s incident, as well as the language and interpretation of the wrestling hair-length rules.

“As a result of the investigation, those rules have changed. We are confident that those changes, together with the training programs NJSIAA will be developing in collaboration with DCR, will ensure that a situation like this does not happen in the future.

“The NJSIAA’s mission includes fostering a safe and healthy playing environment for student-athletes, providing training for school administrators, coaches and officials, and making sure that rules promote fair play. Today’s Joint Agreement helps advance each of those goals.”

The DCR also issued a new “Guidance on Race Discrimination Based on Hairstyle” to explain how treating people differently due to their hairstyle may violate the state’s anti-discrimination laws and to help prevent such discrimination in the future.

The guidance clarifies that policies that banning, limiting, or restricting hairstyles closely associated with those of African American descent — including twists and dreadlocks — may violate New Jersey law.

“Student athletes should be able to compete with each other on a level playing field,” Attorney General Grewal said in a statement. “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.”

Attempts to reach Maloney and New Jersey Wrestling Officials Association president Bill Dickson for comment weren’t immediately returned.

Maloney was the official for the Buena-Oakcrest dual meet on Dec. 19 when he instructed Buena’s Andrew Johnson to either wear the proper hair cover, cut his dreadlocks, or forfeit the 120-pound bout.

Johnson elected to undergo the mat-side haircut, which was captured on video by SNJ Today. The video then went viral on social media.

Both the wrestler and referee were thrust into the national spotlight, sparking controversy on both sides and eliciting reactions from nationally known athletes including South Jersey native and Olympic wrestler Jordan Burroughs, pop culture icons and politicians.

The NJSIAA issued a statement saying Maloney would “not be assigned to any events until this matter has been reviewed more thoroughly in order to avoid potential distractions for the competing wrestlers …”

Maloney, who is white, was involved in another incident after using a racial epithet to describe a fellow referee. In the 2016 incident, Maloney was with other officials in a private condominium after working the War at the Shore youth tournament in Wildwood.

During a disagreement about homemade wine, fellow referee Preston Hamilton, who is African American, said Maloney poked him in his chest with his finger while saying the epithet. Hamilton responded by slamming Maloney to the floor.

Maloney said he didn’t remember using the epithet, but later told the Courier-Post, “You know, people do make mistakes and I apologized. I really don’t think this should go any further than it’s gone anyhow. … The remark was not made to him. After he told me what I said, it was pertaining to us breaking each other’s stones.”

The NJSIAA’s investigation took over seven months to be finalized.

The incident caused the National Federation of High Schools to amend the hair-length rule change. Rule 4-2-1 now states that hair shall not extend below the top of an ordinary shirt collar in the back; and on the sides, the hair shall not extend below earlobe level; in the front, the hair shall not extend below the eyebrows. The term “natural state” was eliminated from the rule.

More: Grappling with the N-word

More: Buena wrestler’s parents, attorney address national controversy over dreadlocks incident

As part of the Wednesday’s announced agreement,  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.

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 training.

Johnson, who had wrestled without a hair cover at the season-opening Robin Leff Tournament without incident, won a 4-2 overtime decision in the Buena-Oakcrest meet.

After sitting out two weeks, he returned to compete in the Williamstown Duals on Jan. 5.

Johnson finished third at District 29 before his season ended with a first-round loss at Region 8 in February.

Maloney filed a legal claim alleging defamation of character and emotional distress in a tort notice filed in March.

View the full agreement between the NJSIAA and the Division on Civil Rights at the Courier Post.


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