H.S. wrestler forced to cut dreadlocks; viral video stirs questions of whether race was factor

A New Jersey high school wrestler was reportedly forced to cut his hair this week before competing in a match in an incident that has stirred questions about whether race was involved in the decision.

According to SNJ Today, Buena High School wrestler Andrew Johnson, who is black, was told by a white referee that he would have to cut off his dreadlocks or forfeit during Wednesday's meet with Oakcrest High School. Johnson and his coaches initially protested the decision before the wrestler ultimately agreed to the quick haircut in a video posted by SNJ Today that has gone viral.

Johnson had intended to cover his dreadlocks with a hair cap, as is permitted by national and state rules, but was not allowed to do so, according to the report.

SNJ Today reports that the coaches tried to defend Johnson against the referee's decision before an injury time clock was started that would have led to a forfeit. A team trainer performed the haircut on Johnson.

Johnson would win his 120-pound match with a takedown in overtime. He had previously competed in one other match this season without incident.

Based on video of the match, the referee has been identified as the same person who in 2016 offered to go through sensitivity training and an alcohol awareness program after he reportedly used the N-word toward another official, according to the Cherry Hill (N.J.) Courier-Post.

Johnson and school officials have not publicly commented on the incident.

The Division on Civil Rights has opened an investigation into what happened, said Leland Moore, a spokesman for Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal. The referee in question will not be assigned to another event until the investigation is complete.

Earlier Friday, Larry White, the executive director of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, said in a statement that the association had recommended that the "referee in question not be assigned to any event until this matter has been reviewed more thoroughly in order to avoid potential distractions for the competing wrestlers."

The Division on Civil Rights investigation will take precedence over the NJSIAA's inquiry.

The video was shared widely on social media, with users calling the incident "racist," "cruel" and "humiliating."

Buena High's coach deferred to the superintendent's office, which said in a letter to the community that it supports and stands by all student athletes.

"The student-athlete made the decision to have his hair cut, at that moment, in order to avoid a forfeiture of the match," wrote Superintendent David Cappuccio, adding that school officials reached out to the athletic association afterward. "The district will take appropriate action as more details become available."

At least one other wrestling referee attempted to defend Wednesday's ruling, although he noted he had not seen the video in question.

"The interpretation of the rule was applied correctly," Ron Roberts told the Courier-Post, saying he was told Johnson's cap was not connected to his headgear as required. "The kid had to have legal head cover by rule or he's got to cut his hair."

Wrestlers are allowed to wear legal hair covers during matches, according to wrestling rules set by the National Federation of State High School Associations, NJ.com reports . If a wrestler's hair in its natural state extends below the earlobe on the sides or touches the top of a normal shirt, it's required to be secured in a hair cover.

The ACLU of New Jersey tweeted that the incident isn't about hair, but rather about race.

"This was discrimination, and it's not OK," a portion of the ACLU's statement read.

Information from The Associated Press was included in this report.