Yesterday, photos and video of a situation at a high school wrestling match went viral when Buena Regional High School wrestler Andrew Johnson was forced to make an on-the-spot decision: cut off his hair or forfeit his match.
While some seemed to view the incident as inspirational (with one reporter calling Johnson a “team player” for being willing to cut off his locs for the sake of victory), many others believe the referee’s demand fell under the category of racial discrimination. Johnson, who is black, normally wears a hair covering to comply with the National Federation of State High School Associations’ regulations for hair that extends past the earlobes. The Courier-Post reports that Johnson hasn’t had any previous compliance issues while wearing it for competition, but for the past few seasons, the rules had become stricter and required athletes to attach their hair coverings to their headgear — Johnson’s covering apparently wasn’t attached to his headgear.
The claims of the demands being an issue of race are fueled by a 2016 report that the referee, Alan Maloney, called a black referee the n-word during an argument. Maloney said that he didn’t remember using the word, but didn’t dispute that claim that he’d said it.
Johnson’s coach initially pushed back against Maloney’s demands, but the injury clock had already started, leaving Johnson with very little time to make a decision. So he sacrificed his hair for the sake of a chance at victory.
The decision paid off in the form of a sudden-death win over his opponent, but at a cost that may have felt very personal — in the black community, hair and identity are closely intertwined. Textured hair and the styles that go with it (such as locs and afros) have historically been viewed as “unprofessional” or “inappropriate,” and many people see Johnson’s predicament as a sign that this cultural struggle still isn’t over.
UFC fighter Aljamain Sterling got wind of the story and chatted with TMZ about his feelings on it, saying it was “messed up on so many levels.” He also said that, had he been Johnson’s coach, he would’ve had the whole team forfeit the match in protest.
Sterling, who trains out of Long Island, NY, said that he’s extended an offer to Johnson to come train with him. While there’s no word yet on if Johnson would take Sterling up on the offer, it would be interesting to see what would happen if this talented wrestler got to train with some of the world’s greatest MMA fighters.