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A Bias Approach to Sports By Mark Hollis

Last month a teenage wrestler was refused the opportunity to compete unless he cut his hair. The young, African American student, Andrew Johnson, was competing in a New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) sanctioned tournament. The referee, Alan Maloney stated to Andrew and his coaches that his dreadlocks were a clear violation of the NJSIAA and needed to be cut or they would forfeit the match. Andrew, sixteen years old, decided to shear the locks and wrestle. At that point, the team trainer was seen cutting Johnson’s dreadlocks. The video of the incident went viral on social media and was picked up by every cable and network news station.

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, wrestlers’ hair cannot extend past the ear lobe. If it does, they must wear a legal hair cap to cover it. Johnson was wearing a cap, but it wasn’t attached to the headgear as the rule requires, according to Buena graduate Ron Roberts, a wrestling referee of more than 20 years. Johnson would’ve been in compliance in the past, but the rule changed within the past couple of seasons to require the cap to be attached to the headgear. There are many questions to be asked, but two stand out: why didn’t his coaches or trainers know of this rule change, and why was the referee who had been reprimanded in the past for racial comments go to the extreme of having Johnson’s hair cut in such extreme fashion? Some critics wondered why Johnson was told he had to cut his hair, rather than compete with a wrap over his head, like many other wrestlers with long hair.

I believe there is a strong movement to conform athletes, predominately of color, to the standards of acceptance by white males in positions of authority. Its origin is from a feeling of empowerment over those individuals who don’t look or act as they should. Is it racist? In my opinion, yes. Is it socially biased? I believe it is. Case in point is Colin Kaepernick whose protest in the NFC resulted in him being blackballed from the game. And let’s not forget about Michael Sam, the gay football player from the University of Missouri. Sam was an All-American Defensive player of the SEC and came out as gay during the draft. Teams shied away from him in the first rounds, but eventually, he was drafted in the late rounds in 2014 by the St. Louis Rams. However, he was never given a legitimate shot as a player. The point I’m trying to make is that there are people who align themselves with the feelings of that “Old Guard” whose mandates will let you play, but you must know your place. So, where do we go from here?

There is an old saying that there is strength in numbers. I interpret that to mean that we all have a voice in what is acceptable or not. As a society, we must show solidarity in some form or another. Stand if you can when there are instances of abuse. Document what you see and do something with it. Social media are such a great vehicle. Lastly, speak up whether it’s in small groups or at the podium. Face the fear of retaliation with your family and friends. Young Andrew Johnson never should experience anything like what he went through ever again.

Update: The state athletic association has asked that the ref who forced a wrestler to cut his dreadlocks be sidelined until further notice. In addition, the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights has opened an investigation.