By Christine Houghton
Sports and competitive athletics are a huge part of most high school students’ experiences. Whether they are athletes, spectators or members of the band, the sounds of football, basketball, baseball and many other sports still ring in their ears to this day.
Consistent objects of the collective dislike of onlookers are the referees, officials clad in black and white stripes with patches signifying the organization they work for in this case –– the NJSIAA.
Any New Jersey athlete can share stories of NJSIAA referees making insane calls and blatantly ignoring serious fouls. One athlete of a recent event can share a horror story of his own.
According to nj.com, on Dec. 20, as a 16-year-old wrestler from Buena High School was preparing for a match against his opponent from Oakcrest High School, he could not begin to imagine what would be asked of him before he stepped foot on the mat.
In general, as long as a wrestler has the proper head cover for hair that reaches below his ear lobes, he is allowed to wrestle.
One wrestler, Andrew Johnson, was asked by the referee to cut his dreadlocks before a match or be forced to forfeit, therefore awarding the other team six additional points to its total score.
Rather than take the fall, Johnson chose the haircut, which proved to be a quick and messy job done by his trainer with the scissors she uses to cut medical tape.
Johnson’s hair, which at its longest did not go past his shoulders, was still cut despite the teenager’s obvious distress concerning the matter. While Johnson had been allowed to wear a cap covering his dreadlocks in previous matches this season, the match’s referee denied him the pre-approved right to use the cap.
The judge and jury of this controversial call was Alan Maloney, a referee from south Jersey who frequented championship matches and is known for being racist in the past, according to nj.com.
In March 2016, Maloney was accused of using a racial slur during a referee social gathering following a youth wrestling tournament in Wildwood.
The comment was followed by an African-American referee slamming Maloney to the ground, according to nj.com. Both referees faced suspension, but returned to their jobs after an appeal. The NJSIAA gave schools the right to veto Maloney’s assignment to any of their matches but there are no records of this ever happening.
On the day of Johnson’s match, Maloney reportedly showed up late, missing the pre-match meeting where issues such as hair length, weight class and other debatable aspects of wrestlers are usually discussed.
The Johnson family alleges Maloney evaluated Andrew prior to the match and did not express any concerns about the wrestler’s eligibility to compete. Maloney is currently not being assigned to any matches due to a pending investigation.
This event has proven not to be the only of its kind in existence, but rather one of the first to surface so publicly.
The topics of proper headgear, its availability to wrestlers, reliability of referees and the accountability of the NJSIAA in wrestling and many other sports are all being called into question, at no surprise to many.
The length of the list of ignored claims and referee misconduct by the NJSIAA is currently unknown to the public because it is a private organization, but a brief conversation with any high school coach or player will reveal nothing short of countless attempts to add to that list.
The Johnson incident has the potential to spark an interest in keeping the NJSIAA honest and loyal to the games its referees officiate.