You might have seen the news story floating around about the New Jersey wrestler who was forced to cut his dreadlocks or forfeit his match. The item was originally pushed as a feel-good type reflecting the importance of self-sacrifice and teamwork. At least until a bunch of people pointed out, “Oh wait, this is racist as shit.” But is that an accurate assessment of the situation? Given the intricate and, at times, archaic rules regarding wrestling as a sport and its scorekeeping, is it fair for the general public to make assumptions about a sport they know little to nothing about? As a relative expert on the subject, let me weigh in.
Of course, you don’t have to (nor should you) take my word for it. Let me offer a very brief overview of why this “team player’s sacrifice” was wildly uncalled for.
1) There’s Something Called Injury Time, and It’s Ungodly
I shouldn’t say it’s ungodly. What I should say is that “injury time” is also commonly referred to as “blood time,” and it’s the set number of minutes that the sport of wrestling will allow a child to bleed uncontrollably before stepping in and saying, “Yeah, you gotta give up on this.” Essentially, if either wrestler is injured during the match and can’t recover within six minutes, the match is called. More often than not, this means, “Can we keep a tampon up this kid’s nose so he’s not bleeding out for long enough to finish this thing?” (My god, I love this sport.) Usually, injury time is more than sufficient, and when it isn’t other accommodations can be made. Like the kid in high school who had so many nose bleeds he eventually started wearing a Bane-like facemask to prevent them. It was excessively badass.
But injury time can also be used to accommodate issues that arise with headgear or uniforms. In fact, injury time was used when one of the other wrestlers on my high school team wore boxer briefs that had a slightly longer leg than the singlet he was wearing. The underpants kept peaking out of the bottom of his uniform, pissing off the ref to no end. If I remember correctly, the ref gave him time to cut the bottoms of the boxers in order to prevent his immodesty, and the coaches gave him a package of tighty whities prior to the next meet. (Please remember “meet” is the correct terminology for wrestling. It’s not a game, and we don’t play it.) And why exactly was the ref overly concerned with a high school boy’s underpants? Well, …
2) Wrestling Has A Lot Of Weird Ass Rules
As much as I love the ever-loving crap out of wrestling, it’s a little bit gross. And by “a little bit,” I mean, it’s an event where 14 sets of teenaged people take turns rolling around sweating, bleeding, and spitting onto the same mat over the course of an evening without that mat ever being cleaned once. So it’s like a lot gross.
And that inherent grossness means that the refs are responsible not just for making sure that the wrestlers are physically safe while body slamming each other, but also not-plaguey safe while touching each other’s most private parts. This is a fairly difficult task. It’s also why wrestlers are most often identifiable by their cauliflower ears, and a little something that starts with r- and ends with -ingworm. So refs do have to inspect wrestlers’ skin, nails, facial hair, and, yes, regular hair. Wrestlers have been told to shave before matches. Or cut their nails. One unfortunate man-child was told to take a goddamn shower, and if that didn’t work, take another one. Wrestling is one of the fullest contact sports, and that requires a whole new level of intimacy on the parts of the refs and wrestlers. Also?
3) Refs Are Kind Of Dicks
Sometimes. Some of them. Not always. But on occasion, there has been the ref who’s taken it upon himself to redeem the reputation of wrestling on behalf of the sport. Which means sometimes our 172-pounder had to cover up the tattoo he had on his chest of the family’s coat of arms, and sometimes he didn’t. It all sort of depended on if the ref believed that that wildly unfortunate tattoo was “disrespecting” the sport (and ruining an otherwise superb set of pectorals). Refs need to work within the guidelines of the rulebooks, but they’re given a fair amount of leeway. Could the underpants ref have just ignored the garment slip? Probably. But he felt that either the underpants could be used against the wrestler unfairly with some sort of weird hand grip, or that they were unsightly and therefore demeaning the sport. It’s kind of hard to tell. The rules sort of allow for personal interpretation because busting out a measuring tape over each kids’ fingernails is unreasonable. The downside of the independence is that there’s not nearly enough consistency. Sometimes refs are negligent, sometimes they’re only concerned with keeping everyone safe, sometimes they’re hardasses about everything. Also, sometimes they’re flat-out racist. So …
4) This Guy’s A Racist
And I’m not saying he’s a racist only because he made a black kid cut his locs or forfeit his match. I’m saying he’s racist because in 2016, he called a different black person the n-word. That’s the definition of racist, yes?
But outside of that, is the ref a racist simply because he insisted Andrew Johnson (the wrestler in question, not the nineteenth-century racist president) cut his locs before he could wrestle? Absolutely.
According to this piece from NJ.com - subsection Sports, High School (which is apparently a real thing), the ref was fairly questionable to call out the hair cut in the first place.
If a wrestler’s hair in its natural state extends below the earlobe on the sides or touches the top of a normal shirt, it’s required to be secured in a hair cover.
You’ll notice it says “to be secure in a hair cover”? Not chopped the fuck off?
Which leads us to the matter of the hair cover. This is where it gets a little dicey. New rules implemented this year say that wrestlers with longer hair can use a hair cover, but that it needs to be attached to the headgear itself. Johnson’s hair cover admittedly did not attach to the headgear. All of which should have been addressed during weigh in when the physical inspections usually happen except, Alan Maloney, the racist ref in question, was late getting to the meet. Or maybe he was on time but didn’t do a proper inspection. Or he allowed one of the other refs to handle the inspections and then decided they didn’t do a good enough job. Whatever the exact reasons this thing shook out the way it did, Maloney didn’t give Johnson any warning that his hair cover wouldn’t be sufficient until Johnson was on the mat. (And you can bet your good goddamn ass that if Maloney had given the proper warning, Johnson’s coaches wouldn’t have waited until the middle of the meet to address this issue. I’d be willing to bet my right boob (the favorite) that Maloney did not follow protocol about informing Johnson there was an issue with his hair.)
Which means, Maloney almost unquestionably screwed up at some point in not relaying needed information. Then he refused to allow Johnson to make other accommodations (taping the hair cover down, making cuts through the hair cover and slipping the headgear straps through it), and finally decided that he couldn’t possibly just let any of this shit slide. A white man in a position of power used his position to force a black kid to conform to standards that other people in the same position had found unreasonable. I mean, that sounds pretty racist, yes? Basically, if it looks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, and also if it uses the n-word as an insult against a black man, it’s a racist.
And also, shitty call, ref. Shitty, shitty call.
Header Image Source: NBC News