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Ref Suspended, Guidance Announced in Haircut Case

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The New Jersey Attorney General’s office and the Division on Civil Rights announced new statewide guidance on hairstyle discrimination in the wake of an investigation into a 2018 incident wherein a high school wrestler was made to cut his dreadlocks before being allowed to compete by a referee. 

In addition, the DCR and the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association announced an agreement that included a two-year suspension of the referee, as well as implicit bias training for high school athletics officials and staff.

The investigation began after a December 2018 when then-16-year-old Andrew Johnson, a wrestler for Buena High School, was presented with a choice by referee Alan Maloney: he could either forfeit his match, or cut his hair. Johnson’s coaches protested the decision, but ultimately Johnson allowed his hair to be cut by an athletic trainer. Video of the incident went viral.

A Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) between the DCR and NJSIAA detailed the results of parallel investigations by each body. 

Maloney was found to have believed Johnson’s locs to be in violation of an NFHS rule governing the length of an athlete’s hair and when an athlete must use a hair cover. However, according to a release from the Attorney General’s office, that rule had previously been interpreted by wrestling officials to require a hair cover for traditionally Black hairstyles regardless of length.

In new guidance, the DCR said that discrimination based on race includes discrimination based on traits that are “inextricably intertwined with or closely associated with race,” such as hairstyles. 

“Discrimination against Black people because of their hair, which is often based on stereotypes that traditionally Black hairstyles are ‘unprofessional’ or ‘unkempt’ is a persistent form of anti-Black racism,” DCR director Rachel Wainer Apter said. “This guidance makes clear that employers, housing providers and places of public accommodation cannot police Black hair. And the MOA will ensure that high school athletes across the state can focus on being their best, not worrying that their hair will subject them to differential treatment based on race. We are grateful to the NJSIAA for their hard work on this Agreement.”

“With today’s announcement, we hope that no athlete going forward will be forced to sacrifice their identity for the opportunity to compete,” Johnson’s attorney Dominic A. Speziali said in a statement.

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