By Mikelle Street
In a video, now viewed by most since surfacing online on December 20, Andrew Johnson, a high school sophomore and wrestler, has his hair cut by a physical trainer wielding a pair of scissors. The cut was haphazard, the trainer grabbing and hacking at clumps of the student’s dreadlocks at random while wearing gloves. Johnson stood mostly immobile in the clip, seemingly on the verge of tears. At one point his coach, George Maxwell, steps into the frame clapping his hands, speaking directly to Johnson, presumably with words of encouragement, to get the young athlete back in the game — to keep him focused. He had an important match only seconds away. This was just one obstacle.
But what an obstacle it has proven to be. Though Johnson went on to win his bout — looking on dejectedly as Alan Maloney, the referee who gave the wrestler the ultimatum which would lead to cutting his hair, held up Johnson’s arm in victory — it sent ripples through social media, which came back towards the New Jersey high school wrestling circuit in the form of a tidal wave. Celebrities like Ava Duvernay and Olympian Jordan Burroughs tweeted about it, as did politicians and other influential voices. National publications like Sports Illustrated, Ebony, CNN, NPR, Bleacher Report, and USA Today covered the story. Locally, outrage came by way of various community parents, as well as the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights, all demanding to know why and how a black boy had been required to saw off his hair before a wrestling match. And by Maloney, a white referee with an admitted, unpunished past of using racial slurs towards black people? While the simple answer of racism may be apt, it’s important to understand how, structurally, the system was set against Johnson as much as Maloney may have been.
Wrestlers in New Jersey, like wrestlers everywhere, have a specific set of guidelines for acceptable appearance and gear during a match — this extends to hair. For one, wrestlers must be clean shaven, which meant that Maloney had correctly ordered Johnson to shave his chin stubble minutes before the match, but for curious reasons had no concerns about his locs until he actually stepped onto the mat.
When head hair doesn’t meet guidelines, wrestlers have to wear a covering. Those guidelines revolve mostly around length: “The hair, in its natural state, 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,” reads the National Federation of State High School Associations’ 2018-19 Wrestling Rules Book. “If an individual has hair longer than allowed by rule, it may be braided or rolled if it is contained in a cover so that the hair rule is satisfied.”
Johnson opted for a cover. The issue: Recent changes over the past few seasons require that head coverings attach to a wrestler’s ear guards, presumably so it doesn’t come off during the match. Johnson’s did not. He asked if he could push his locs back and Maloney refused, saying that his hair “wasn’t in its natural state.” Though there was a back-and-forth between Maloney and Johnson’s coach, eventually the referee set the injury clock for 90 seconds, the time frame allotted by the guidelines to correct such an infraction. It was under this duress that a visibly shaken Johnson, alone, made the decision to have his hair sawed off.
Watching the video of it all happening feels eerily familiar, and falls within a history of how Black people have been treated in this country. Black people being punished publicly, made an example of, was at one time a sport in America — arguably still today. And this felt little removed from that context. But why this, why now? This was not Johnson’s first match. He had wrestled with the same hair at least twice prior without incident. The difference here was the ref who chose to take issue with the wrestler’s hair style, a by-the-book judgment made by an official who reportedly turned up late to the meet himself.
For people of color, and some others depending on hair texture and curl pattern, dreadlocks are the most natural state of hair. While grooming them can keep the locs uniform and “more presentable” to some, that process is essentially directing the hair to lock in specific sections, as it might lock in other ways were it left on its own. But it still is one of the most natural states for Black hair.
Johnson’s hair did not pass his earlobes on the sides, his eyebrows in the front or his collar in the back. This meant that in terms of length, he passed inspection by the book. But in Maloney’s view, the hairstyle was not natural, and thus unacceptable and needed covering.
The lineage of Black people being taken to task for their hair is long. It goes back to and beyond Louisiana women being required by law to cover their hair in public in an effort to “establish public order and proper standards of morality” and up through today. In April, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a case surrounding whether or not dreadlock-based discrimination in the workplace was illegal. That decision means that the ruling by a Alabama federal judge (which was upheld in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals) that companies can refuse to hire employees on the basis of them having dreadlocks alone still stands today. And while on its face that could seem like an even-handed decision, regulating locs for all, this implicitly says that a hairstyle that is a part of Black culture is inherently unprofessional, regardless of actual upkeep. The U.S. military also had to address the issue, deciding in 2017 that in the U.S. Army, the style would be treated no different than twists or cornrows, and thus allowed for women. The Coast Guard (from a decision in from 2014), Marines (2015), Air Force (2017) and Navy (earlier this July) also allow locs in updated guidelines, arguably few of which were previously made with Black bodies and Black hair in mind.
The reaction to the video of Johnson was a reaction to all of this context: It was a definitive pushback of such a seemingly callous and public display of “reprimanding” a black teen; it was a re-iteration that Black people and by extension Black hair is just as valid as anyone and anything else; and it was a bit of a restorative justice against a referee that had once admitted to saying the n-word to another referee, and ultimately went unpunished, having seen his initial punishment of a year-long suspension, overturned. The pushback first led the school district to publicly come out against the referee, announcing they would not compete in any tournaments Maloney worked, and finally for Maloney to be fired from his role as an official during a pending investigation by the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association and the state’s division on civil rights. It ultimately was a reckoning for Maloney, but by way of making a spectacle of a 16-year-old student.