Briefly, When Accessible History Matters

Briefly, When Accessible History Matters

This post has been updated below.

Andrew Johnson has dreadlocks. Or at least, he did have dreadlocks. He cut them off earlier this week on the orders of Alan Maloney, a wrestling referee, who offered him a choice: cut them off or be disqualified from that night’s match. Johnson cut them off, then won in overtime.

Johnson wrestles for Buena Regional High School. He had previously been wrestling with his dreadlocks under a wrap. It had caused no other problems this season. But on Thursday, Maloney apparently insisted that the dreadlocks had to go, despite the covering having had repeatedly passed muster.

Sports knuckleheads immediately praised Johnson’s willingness to be a team player. They include Mike Frankel, a sports reporter for South New Jersey Today. He included video of the impromptu haircut and celebrated Johnson’s willingness to do what it took to get Buena the win.

Click on that link though, and it becomes very clear that not everybody is convinced that what happened on Thursday was evidence of an individual’s willingness to sacrifice for his team. A second interpretation is that Maloney was motivated by explicit racial hostility toward Johnson; he was not interested so much in Johnson’s safety, in other words, but rather, his humiliation.

Informing this understanding of Maloney’s decision-making is the man’s very public past. In 2016, Malone and Preston Hamilton, another referee, received year-long suspensions after Maloney got into Hamilton’s face, jabbed him in the chest, used the n-word to describe him, and then had his ass handed to him by his enraged coworker. (Both suspensions would be later overturned.) Maloney denied having used the word but did acknowledge that other people present told him he had, in fact, done so. Maloney would later insist he had both sincerely apologized and that Hamilton had accepted his apology; Maloney made it clear that he thinks everybody should be expected to move on.

The fallout remained. Parents knew what Maloney was capable of saying. So did other referees. Given Maloney’s explicit racial animus, it became extremely difficult to imagine that he was refereeing matches from the imagined perspective of an impartial observer. But New Jersey’s wrestling federation refused to further punish Maloney, and insisted that it was up to individual schools to decide whether they were comfortable with Maloney refereeing meets. This column (also linked above) makes clear the potential issues with Maloney’s continued involvement in high school wrestling.

Likely the most visually recognizable official in South Jersey – and maybe the state – Maloney has found himself under the microscope again.

“It was handled by a process,” Maloney said. “Just like anything else, sometimes the process isn’t what people want. You’ve got to accept it, right? So why can’t this be accepted?

“I’ve taken things on my own to make me a better person, anyhow.”

Soon, local wrestling programs will determine if that’s good enough.

Maloney, despite the racial slurs and the concern about his impartiality, passed muster with enough people to get back into refereeing, which brings the entire story back to Thursday night’s decision to insist that one player choose between his hair and his competition, despite workable and previously accepted solutions being available. Maloney has said nothing publicly about his decision; neither has Johnson or Johnson’s coach.

At least one other referee has rushed to Maloney’s defense. Ron Roberts explained that although Johnson was wearing a cap, it may not have been properly attached to his headgear, a new rule which was being unevenly enforced throughout the sport and the state. Roberts insisted that the rule prevented wrestlers with hair past their earlobes from wrestling without wearing proper headgear. Roberts admitted that he had not actually seen the video; Johnson’s ears are completely visible in it, although it is unclear if that is pre-or-post haircut. Roberts said that the entire situation was unfortunate for Maloney, apparently believing it unreasonable to consider a single decision within a broader historical context.

Here we arrive at the familiar, and all too predictable, cultural moment, one in which some people suggest that something was motivated by racial hostility and other people get so offended about the idea that something could have been motivated by racial hostility that they refuse to consider the possibility that it was. The first group will focus on Maloney’s history; the second group will focus on the rule itself while insisting that Maloney’s history had nothing to do with Thursday’s decision. There is no middle ground here. There will be no dissuading either interpretation.

It is perhaps interesting to note that this entire situation could have been avoided if only New Jersey’s high school wrestling hierarchy had broken ties with Maloney in the aftermath of his fight with Hamilton. Unfortunately, substantive consequences were only ever barely on the table for Maloney, who ended up having his behavior excused instead. That hierarchy instead chose to work with a man who had not only voluntarily made his racial hostility clear but had introduced doubts about his impartiality into the minds of some, but not all, observers. That hierarchy apparently never considered the possibility that Maloney’s subsequent decision-making might be considered in concert with his own history. Thursday night is what came next. One wonders if that hierarchy will learn its lesson.

Update: Maloney has been suspended pending an investigation.

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14 thoughts on “Briefly, When Accessible History Matters

    • In the organization’s defense, Maloney has already been suspended, although by now the damage is already done, and everybody who saw something like this coming has been entirely vindicated.

      However, it is good to see that, at least for now, the voices of those anxious to defend Maloney are being drowned out by people who recognize Johnson’s humanity, and what a galling thing it is to be treated as he was.


  1. People with power using an interpretation of ‘the rules’ to exercise their bias/bigotry is nothing new, nor is the fact that others will defend ‘the rules’, and those exercising them, over people whenever ‘the rules’ might be threatened.

    The fact that the interpretation was used to further racism is just some extra ugly to add to that cake.

    Hell, your last post had a good chunk of this as well.

    The thing is, we like our rules to have wiggle room in them, and only get pissed when they are bent in ways we don’t like (but are otherwise fine with them getting bent in ways we do like).


  2. Ron Roberts explained that although Johnson was wearing a cap, it may not have been properly attached to his headgear, a new rule which was being unevenly enforced throughout the sport and the state.

    I’m peripherally involved with enforcement of equipment rules for a state-wide sports organization. If this statement is true, and Maloney was enforcing the current rule, I am a good deal more sympathetic to his situation. I have been in the position of telling a high-school kid, “You can’t compete, your gear doesn’t conform to the rules.” Also telling their parents and coach to not tell me that the kid was allowed to compete with it last week, because I’m required to report that, and the follow-on repercussions may be worse for the kid than not competing today.

    We wish that all of our officials took the time to explain every equipment rules violation and laid out all of the options for the competitors. But there’s always time pressure, and the equivalent of a brusque “Your hair’s too long, your cap’s not in spec, fix one of them in the next five minutes or you’re disqualified for not being ready,” is sometimes what happens.


    • Perhaps it is reading too much into things, but the state board’s apparent refusal to immediately say, “Alan Maloney was enforcing the following rule, here is the rule,” coupled with the lack of clarity about the issue itself – was it his allegedly long hair or was it the cap he was wearing – makes me think that possibility that it was either issue is unlikely. If, in other words, they thought it was clear cut, why not come over the top with everything that absolved Maloney?


      • Because there’s a process. In our case, what could be done immediately would be to suspend the referee. Beyond that, we are part of a national organization, and the process requires that we pass it to the national office, which will conduct the investigation. The state board would say, “The referee has been suspended. The national office is investigating.” And that’s what would be said even if we all knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the referee was enforcing the rules as written, or that the referee had been a racist a**hole and was going to be banned from the sport.

        In all likelihood, the process in New Jersey will have been largely dictated by the company providing the liability insurance coverage. Certainly in my sport it is, because we’re out of business w/o liability insurance. The sanctioning body for NJ high school athletics may self insure, but I would be surprised. You need to have your own reserves to do that — eg, it doesn’t look like Michigan State is finding their $500M settlement particularly painful. High school athletics is unlikely to have a few million salted away against legal claims. Insurance companies don’t care about the good of the athletes, or the referees, or even the sanctioning bodies. They care about processes that minimize the risk of them having to pay large settlements.


    • I can see this being one of those letter/spirit of the rule kind of things.

      The wrestler wants to keep his dreads, the coach reads the rule and decides it has enough wiggle room to allow it. Maybe they go to a couple of meets and the coach sells his logic to the refs at those meets and they accept the interpretation. Problem is, the refs have final say at the meet, and it only takes one ref to reject the interpretation and decide to stick to the letter of the rule to cause this issue.

      Ultimately, as Mike says, it will be up to the governing body to decide who was right, and hopefully issue guidance clearing up any ambiguity in the rule.


      • For the record, I think it is much more likely that nothing was sold to referees at other meets, but rather, that those referees were not motivated by the same sort of hostility as Maloney was. There was no issue, so they didn’t make it an issue. But Maloney made an issue out of it to show both the wrestler and the world who was in charge, and whose way goes.


        • Given the guys past incident, you may well be right. But the ref may very well be exonerated simply because the rules could be interpreted both ways. If that winds up being the case, then the best you can hope for is that the governing body clarifies the rules, so as to avoid this being an issue in the future.


          • From the linked article:

            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, according to Howie O’Neil, who’s officiated for 44 years.

            “The interpretation of the rule was applied correctly,” said Roberts, who hadn’t seen the video, but had heard of the incident. “The kid had to have legal head cover by rule or he’s got to cut his hair.”

            The letter of the law is on the side of the referee. Absent past bad behavior by said referee, this is a story about a kid who sacrificed his hair for this teammates.


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