A few weeks ago, a news story broke about a teenage, African American wrestler who was forced to cut his hair during a wrestling match in New Jersey. This story and its accompanying coverage were met with significant public outrage. The 16-year-old, Andrew Johnson, is a varsity wrestler and was forced to cut his hair after the referee told him that “his hair and headgear were not in compliance with league regulations.” In response, Andrew said he could push his hair out of his face, but since his hair “was not in its natural state”, the referee refused. As more information comes out, it was learned that this referee was late to the match and missed the original check-over that typically happens before wrestling matches in order to make sure all of the athletes are following the appropriate standards and regulations of the particular league. In the NFHS rule book, hair can’t be must be longer than a “shirt collar in the back, below his earlobes on the sides, or below his eyebrows.” If an athlete violates any of these conditions, he or she must braid his/her hair or get it out of the way by means of the ear guards. In the end, the referee cut Andrew’s hair in the gym with scissors before the match.
Andrew’s parents and school administrators believe that the referee’s request and act were a “disqualifying race-related transgression.” Since Andrew had wrestled with his hair this length previously, some are questioning why it was opposed to at this particular time. Also, the referee in this match refused Andrew’s attempts at accommodating his complaint. Higher ranking authorities have become involved in this situation, such as the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) executive director, Larry White. He announced that the referee that cut Andrew’s hair will not be able to referee for any matches until the situation is thoroughly discussed and hopefully settled. As an African American man himself, White was also stated that “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.” Moving forward, there is a stated attempt to reduce race-related bias in wrestling and all other sports.
As stated, this story made headlines and gained national attention. Professional wrestlers, such as Jordan Burroughs, commented on Andrew’s story: “I’ve been wrestling for 25 years, at every level, and I have never once seen a person required to cut their hair during a match. My opinion is that this was a combination of an abuse of power, racism, and just plain negligence.” Aljamain Sterling, another professional wrestler, commented as well: “Epitome of overdose on power! Smh. Glad the kid won the match after making such a sacrifice for whatever vendetta the ref had against him, the team, or “other” reasoning. That was NOT OK! Embarrassing.”
What are your thoughts on this situation? Do you think that the referee’s decision and the act of cutting Andrew Johnson’s hair was justified as it followed league rules, or was it an act of racially-based discrimination? What do you think should be the referee’s outcome, and do you have any ideas on how the situation can be handled and/or resolved? Let me know in the comments below!