16-year-old junior Andrew Johnson appeared distraught when referee Alan Maloney rejected the length of his dreadlocks and hair covering. The referee gave him a 90-second ultimatum to cut his braids or forfeit the match.
With Johnson’s coach pleading with the unrelenting Maloney. Under clear duress, Johnson allowed the team’s trainer to cut his dreadlocks. Reactions from Wednesday’s emergency meeting of the Buena Regional School Board were intense.
“The burden that Andrew has to carry was caused by the referee and caused by the entities that allowed him to be in that position. I was tasked by the family to find out why this happened here, and it’s still not clear to me why that had to happen in that manner,” said Dominic Speziali, the Johnson family’s attorney.
“The shame in all that is he was humiliated on the mat, traumatized, and he is not going to get over that. He’s not going to get over that, not for awhile. And of course, if there are any racial overtones to the referee, he’s gone. In fact, he should be gone now. What happened is a travesty and should have never happened,” said Steve Martinelli, an alumnus of Buena Regional High School.
Johnson’s family says even though he won the match, he was dejected and went off to the side to cry.
“People are put in certain situations that are very challenging, and that they can find very coercive. And perhaps, I don’t know this to be the case with Mr. Johnson necessarily, but it might be the case that he felt it would have been more humiliating, or more upsetting, to let his team down in that moment,” said forensic psychologist Gianni Pirelli.
“So for somebody to just summarily snip away at this person’s hair is snipping away at their culture, and that is unacceptable,” said Amol Sinha, executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey.
The ACLU of New Jersey calls it a case of implicit bias.
“Implicit biases result in double trauma,” said Sinha. “First, being the trauma of being told these are race-neutral rules, you’re just whining about something that’s easily applicable to everybody. And then secondarily is the trauma of being told that what happened to you was not indeed a problem. It’s pernicious, it’s vile, and it’s something that a lot of people don’t see because there’s not overt racism in the incident.”
Maloney did not respond to requests for comment, and neither did a half dozen of his referee and colleagues from across the state. When asked about any support for Maloney, an explanation of the rules that govern such situations and whether any of them have had to make such a call.
Maloney has been suspended while the state attorney general and the association that governs high school sports investigates. Buena Regional School Board said it’s reviewing the incident and the action or silence of its employees on the floor and in the stands. The school says it won’t compete in any more events that Maloney officiates.
The ACLU calls it a teachable moment, one that should yield clear answers about rules and how to evenly apply them.