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High school wrestling official involved in dreadlocks controversy suing over suspension

MELANIE BURNEY
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
Dreadlocks are at the center of a high school wrestling controversy.

A high school referee who made a South Jersey wrestler choose between having his dreadlocks cut or forfeiting his match in 2018 has filed a lawsuit alleging he was unfairly suspended.

Alan Maloney contends that the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association failed to follow due process when it disciplined him in September 2019. A lawsuit filed in Superior Court in Atlantic County last December seeks damages and legal fees.

At its monthly executive meeting Wednesday, NJSIAA attorney Steve Goodell announced the lawsuit and said it was under review. A spokesperson declined to comment Thursday.

Maloney made international headlines during the incident involving Andrew Johnson, then a junior at Buena Regional High School. Johnson, 16, agreed to have several inches of his dreadlocks cut after Maloney told him he could not compete without a hair covering that met regulation standards.

A video of a distressed Johnson standing on the mat as a Buena trainer used scissors to cut his hair went viral. The incident prompted accusations of racism and cultural bias. Johnson is biracial. Maloney is white.

Maloney, of Berlin Borough, has defended his actions during the match between Johnson and an opponent from Oakcrest High School in Mays Landing. He did not respond to a message left at his home Thursday.

In an earlier notice of intent to file a lawsuit, Maloney alleged defamation of character and emotional distress and cited a loss of income of $100,000.

In the lawsuit, Maloney named the Buena Regional Board of Education, George Maxwell, the school's wrestling coach, and David Albertson, the school's athletic director.

Buena School Superintendent David Cappuccio Jr. declined to comment Thursday. Maloney's attorney, Louis Barbone, did not respond to a message.

Immediately after the incident, the athletic association barred Maloney from officiating at any meets pending the outcome of investigations. Supporters say Maloney, who had been officiating for more than 40 years, is a stickler for the rules.

After an investigation by the state Division on Civil Rights, state Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal sidelined Maloney for two years in September 2019. An agreement reached with the NJSIAA mandated implicit bias training for Maloney and other officials and high school athletics staff.

The probe resulted in an agreement in which there was no finding of liability, the state said at the time. Maloney appealed his suspension for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons to the state Department of Education, alleging the NJSIAA lacked jurisdiction in the matter and the decision was "arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable."

In a decision last month, acting Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan upheld the NJSIAA's finding that Maloney was sanctioned because he put a student-athlete with a traditionally Black hairstyle "in the untenable position of choosing between forfeiting an important match and having his hair cut in front of his teammates, opponents, coaches, and spectators." She agreed that the video of the incident gave the impression that Johnson was publicly humiliated as a result of his hairstyle.

Wrestling rules have been changed and officiants have been directed to interpret rules about hair for athletes based on the length, not style such as braids, twists, knots, or the dreadlocks worn by Johnson. New Jersey enacted the "Crown Law," which bans discrimination based on hair.