UPDATED: Referee Alan Maloney has been fired from the school district, per Superintendent David Cappuccio. An emergency community meeting was held on Dec. 26, at which Cappuccio announced the decision.
By now you've likely seen or heard about Andrew Johnson's story. If not, here's a quick run-down:He's a high school wrestler with Buena High School in New Jersey. He's a Black student who wore long dreadlocks, and had competed previously like this without issues. At the match, he was wearing a head covering for his hair per guidelines, and stepped on the mat to compete as always.
Alan Maloney, ref for the game, decided to give Johnson an impossible ultimatum: cut off his hair or forfeit his match. Maloney is white, and has history of racist remarks for which he has been disciplined. Johnson's coaches argued with Maloney for several minutes before Maloney started the 90-second injury clock — basically the signal that they had 90 seconds to comply or forfeit. At that point, teenager Johnson indicated he would cut his hair before the match rather than forfeit. This resulted in the heart-wrenching, and in my opinion, sickening video posted below.
I will leave aside Mike Frankel's gross mischaracterization of this event as one of a feel-good "team player" story, mostly because he got dragged for it (including by me) and issued a genuinely and appropriately-worded apology with no conditions or defensiveness attached.
The story spread like wildfire, and support for the student was quick and strong. Everyone from Ava DuVernay to New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy tweeted their outrage at the ref's actions and heartfelt support for Andrew Johnson. Maloney was identified quickly, and nearly just as quickly, his racist history was exposed. According to The Washington Post, "The fallout prompted state investigators to open a probe into the matter, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association said in a statement Saturday, in a joint effort with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights."
A few supported Maloney, stating he was following the rules correctly. If so, though, I have questions.
1. Is he the ONLY ref that follows the rules correctly? Because this is the first time we are hearing of such a story.
2. Does he ONLY enforce the rules for Black students?
3. Does this happen all the time, and we are only learning of it now? Does the rule need re-evaluating?
According to Buena Regional School District superintendent David Cappuccio Jr., Maloney is only sidelined from officiating wrestling matches in the Buena Regional School District. Sounds to me like he can officiate elsewhere.
Personally, I agree with USA Today's Josh Peter's approach, calling for a lifetime ban for Maloney. End his career. If it turns out, as has been reported elsewhere, he gave Johnson two choices instead of three (finding a different cap,) putting a kid in the untenable position of choosing public humiliation connected to his personal identity or sacrificing his team's chance to win, he does not belong anywhere near kids.
Fortunately, it’s a teachable moment.
To teach kids about racial and cultural sensitivity.
To teach kids about responsibility.
To teach kids about accountability.
Of course here's how: Make sure referee Alan Maloney never again officiates a high school athletic event.
Everyone has rightly focused on the face of Andrew Johnson in that awful video. His defeated body language. His heart-broken expression, even in an overtime victory over his opponent. But in the photo above, consider the faces of the two other students I highlighted.
The student on the left, whose face I circled? I can't get his expression out of my mind. What is he thinking as he witnesses this humiliating scene unfolding before his eyes? What does he really wish he could be doing to support his fellow black teammate instead of sitting on the bench watching as a short, blonde, white woman with huge scissors shears his friend's hair off - hair that will take years to re-grow? What is happening in his heart?
The student on the right, to whom I pointed with an arrow? He steps up to high-five his teammate. He tries to be encouraging. He places his hands on Johnson's shoulders, and says, "Don't worry about it." He's white. Other white teammates step up to offer similar messages. It's seemingly benign in intention, and yet...what they told Johnson with their encouragement and attempts at comfort were that they were willing to stand by and support his humiliation. That they weren't willing to use their privilege to stand up for him as a team and not allow this to happen. That his identity and experience was less important than the wrestling match.
Those white students have a lot to learn. They may not have intended harm. They probably did not. But if progress is to be made, those with power must learn — MUST INTERNALIZE — that impact is greater than intent. THAT is the learning opportunity for those students. But where were any of the adults here? Why did they not stand up for Andrew either? What message did they give to those students by not protecting Andrew?
It's not just Maloney who needs to answer for this.