Jacob Bogage, The Washington Post
Published 12:25 pm PST, Friday, December 21, 2018
Andrew Johnson stood at the side of the mat, shoulders slumped forward, as teammates from Buena Regional High School stepped up one at a time with a high five and some encouragement.
Epitome of a team player ⬇️@brhschiefs to wrestle with a cover over his dreadlocks. It was either an impromptu haircut, or a forfeit. Johnson chose the haircut, then won by sudden victory in OT to help spark Buena to a win. pic.twitter.com/f6JidKNKoI
— Mike Frankel (@MikeFrankelSNJ) December 20, 2018
“Don’t worry about it,” one said, putting his hands on Johnson’s shoulders as a team athletic trainer stood behind the wrestler, shearing off his hair.
Johnson wore thick, dark brown dreadlocks to a meet on Wednesday against rival Oakcrest, another one of the top wrestling teams in southern New Jersey. But before the 120-pound bout could begin, the referee refused to let Johnson on the mat with that hairstyle, even with a hair covering.
One of the new points of emphasis for wrestling officials this year, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, is to ensure all equipment worn on the mat, including hair coverings, fits “snug” to a wrestler’s body. The official gave Johnson a choice: Forfeit the match or get a quick haircut.
Johnson chose the trim, and later won the match in sudden-victory overtime, according to SNJToday. But a video posted of the exchange prompted outrage on Friday, along with questions about why Johnson was forced to choose between his hair and his competition.
Twitter activist Shaun King called the video “disgusting and heartbreaking,” and added: “Never should’ve been allowed.” Sports broadcaster Taylor Rooks wrote that the official “should be ashamed,” and that “expressing disapproval of the hair is in many ways expressing disapproval of the person. Don’t mold this into a feel-good story of victory. It is a story of terrible discrimination.” Soledad O’Brien wrote that Johnson “was humiliated and seemed devastated even after his win.”
“Ban him for life. Fire him from his job,” wrote ESPN anchor Keith Olbermann of the referee.
“This was discrimination, and it’s not okay,” wrote the ACLU of New Jersey.
Mike Frankel, the reporter whose video of the incident went viral, explained that as Johnson’s coaches argued the referee’s ruling, the injury time clock was started, which was when Johnson agreed to have his hair cut.
Frankel, too, was criticized for his framing of the incident. He had described Johnson as the “epitome of a team player,” setting up the story as one of a generous player making a sacrifice for his team. Amid criticism, he later wrote “I know now I missed the bigger picture, and for that I apologize.”
“I understand many of you watch this video and feel strong emotions. I do too,” Frankel wrote. “I’d just like to remind you that I didn’t cause the action, I documented the action. And my method of delivery fell short in many ways.”
Buena won the meet, its first dual competition of the season, 41-24, and topped Oakcrest last January to win an eighth straight title. And as the referee raised Johnson’s hand in victory after the bout, his bottom lip was split open, his uniform was dotted with blood spots, and his hairstyle was entirely changed.
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