by Bruce Dunlavy
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It almost seems ridiculous. I thought we had put the long-hair-on-young-men issue to rest in about 1972. Yet here it is again in 2018.

Yes, the Culture Wars still have sporadic clashes, but the Hair Battles are something that should have been over a long time ago. One of my earliest posts on this site discussed l’affaire de hair and tried to dismiss it as any sort of contentious matter.

It’s back! Amazing and pathetic as it sounds, we are joined in this battle again, as the news media are filled with stories about an African-American high school wrestler who was forced by a referee to have his dreadlocks cut in order to participate in an interscholastic wrestling match. The video is all over social media, to mostly outraged responses.

Here’s what the facts say. Andrew Johnson, a wrestler for Buena High School in New Jersey, was about to enter his 120-pound match in a dual meet against Oakcrest High. Johnson wore his hair in relatively short dreadlocks (see the accompanying pre-match photo), but New Jersey rules require that wrestlers whose hair extends below their earlobes must wear an approved head covering that attaches to the headgear they already wear to protect their ears. Johnson was wearing such a covering, one that he had worn throughout the season so far.

As he approached the mat, Johnson was confronted by referee Alan Maloney, who gave him an ultimatum: submit to a haircut or forfeit the match. Johnson took one for the team, and stood silently while a team trainer snipped his hair to a length acceptable to Maloney. He then went onto the mat, where he won in overtime to help Buena secure a 41-24 win. With a bloodied face, Johnson barely stayed to have his hand raised in victory before leaving the mat with a countenance betraying distress and humiliation instead of the joy of victory.

Image credit: the Johnson family

Atlantic County is two-thirds white and 17 percent African-American. Buena High School is 15 percent African-American. Thus Johnson is a member of a racial minority both in social status and demographics. Referee Maloney has a history of racial confrontation, having once called an African-American referee “the N-word,” which got him a one-year suspension. Whether he should have been allowed to referee high school matches ever again is a matter for another discussion. What is important here is that there were failures all around. The young wrestler was let down by all the adults in the room.

First, the head covering required for long-haired wrestlers is not just any old bandanna you might happen to have lying around. It is a specialty item, a close-fitting fabric unit that attaches to the ear guards and costs about twenty dollars. You can see them here. It is common practice for officials at sporting events (I umpired baseball for 35 years) to check equipment before a game or match. In wrestling, the pre-match weigh-in provides a convenient opportunity to evaluate headgear. There was no reason for such a confrontation/ultimatum just as the match was about to start.

When Maloney did direct Johnson to have his hair cut in order to avoid forfeiting his match, the adults should have stepped up. His coaches could have interceded and protested to Maloney. If denied, they could have told him they would not accept his demand. If that meant forfeiting the entire meet, they should have done so, pulled their wrestlers off the floor, and argued it out with the State’s high school athletic association later. This is just a kid, trying to do the right thing for his teammates and friends. Yes, perhaps the teammates could have refused to participate, and Johnson’s opponent could have said, “Hey it’s all right with me; let’s wrestle.” But they too are just kids. They are conditioned not to stand up to athletic authority. They are taught that the official’s ruling is law, even if it is unjust.

The opposing coach should have put principle before victory and refused to accept a forfeiture by keeping his own wrestler off the mat. It should have been obvious to everyone there that this was not right. The young man’s parents had put him in the hands of men and women who should be there to protect him, not to allow his mistreatment and humiliation. Those men and women let this kid down, and let kids everywhere down.

Is this a big enough issue for a coach to risk a lost match, a lost meet, or personal criticism or even punishment? In my mind (and I also coached for several seasons), there are two answers: Yes, and Hell yes. We always tell athletes that the foundations of sports participation are matters bigger than winning and losing. Here was a chance to prove it, and those who should have lived up to that credo failed.

Let us set aside the racial issue for now, because the same case should be made for a white athlete, and the motivations of the bald-headed referee are a separate case from his (and everybody else’s) actions. What happened was right on the ragged edge of child abuse, and it never should have come down to the pre-match confrontation. But when it did come down to that, it should have been responded to by the adults in an adult way.