A referee at a high-school wrestling tournament wouldn’t allow Andrew Johnson to wrestle with a hair cover over his dreadlocks. Instead, he issued an ultimatum: Johnson had to either cut his hair before taking the mat, or forfeit the match.
No other adult — including, apparently, Johnson’s coach — stepped in to argue on his behalf, and Johnson decided to get the haircut, which was done crudely and in the middle of the gym. According to Mike Frankel, the Sports Director at SNJ Today News, Johnson won his match by way of sudden victory in overtime, and helped his team win the meet. But Johnson didn’t look in a celebratory mood after his victory; according to the video, he looked visibly upset by the situation.
When Frankel shared the story on Twitter, he painted it as a heartwarming tale of a selfless “team player,” doing whatever it took to help his team win. Give it more than a moment’s thought, however, and you quickly realize it’s actually yet another tale of systemic racism, and the way subtle ways in which white gatekeepers police black bodies. As Bernice King said on Twitter, a real display of team unity would have been his coaches and his teammates standing up for him, and refusing to allow this referee to put him in this position.
Andrew Johnson’s teammates and coaches protesting on his behalf would have been a true reflection of “team” and dignity, @MikeFrankelSNJ. Please discontinue framing this as a “good” story. It’s actually a reflection of bias and acquiescence to bias. https://t.co/6wXkuFTCVP
— Be A King (@BerniceKing) December 21, 2018
The referee, Alan Maloney, has a history of racism. Two years ago, he called a black referee the “n-word” in a private gathering. The New Jersey Wrestling Officials Southern Chapter allowed Maloney to keep working, despite the protestations of several coaches in the district.
“No, I would prefer not to have that [a referee who used a racial slur officiating a match] ,” Camden High School coach Hedley Thame told the Courier Post at the time. “You’d have to wonder about the calls.”
“It’s bad enough when I started in 1975 and you were getting bad calls and it was likely because the wrestlers were black,” added Thame. “There’s no spot for anything like that in any sport.”
While it seems that Johnson’s offer to wear a cover over his dreadlocks should have been sufficient and kept this from being a problem — several manufacturers make hair caps specifically designed for wrestlers with long hair — rules and regulations in youth sports are often only written with white bodies in mind. Two years ago, a nine-year-old soccer player was banned from playing in a game because of the beads in her hair, despite the fact that she’d played with beads in her hair on and off for six years, without incident.