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N.J. High School Wrestler Told To Cut His Dreadlocks Or Forfeit Match


Last week, at a high school wrestling match in New Jersey, a teenage wrestler, Andrew Johnson, was given two options by the referee. He could either cut off his dreadlocks or forfeit the match. So Johnson let the team's athletic trainer cut off his hair. Video of this went viral, and state authorities have opened an investigation into whether discrimination was a factor.

Washington Post sports columnist Kevin Blackistone is with me now. Good morning, Kevin.


KING: So you've seen this video.


KING: It is pretty painful watching this young man, who apparently felt he had no other choice. What do you think happened here?

BLACKISTONE: Over-officiousness by everyone involved. It should never have happened, from any angle of the story.

No. 1, the referee who ordered him to cut his hair or forfeit the match should not have been there anyway. He had been involved, in 2016, in a racial incident with another referee - a black referee - in which the black referee slammed him to the ground because the white referee had spat a racial slur in his face at a party, which, to me, means that he cannot be an impartial juror in a wrestling match.

No. 2, the coaches for Drew Johnson should've stood up for him. They have rules in place that if you have long hair, or if you have dreads, you wear a hair cap. And, in fact, he was wearing a hair cap. And, in fact, he had wrestled at least a couple times in the weeks before, and there had been no incident.

And third, I just wish that his teammates, and even the opposition, would've stood up for him and said, you know what, this is fine with us. It's not a problem. It creates no advantage or disadvantage. Let's wrestle.

KING: Yeah. I mean, it's interesting. You know, the idea of being a teenage kid and, you know, no one is telling you it's OK for you to not do this. I mean, it's hard to think of how he would've played this differently.


KING: It's also hard - I mean, you mentioned this referee's history of racialized encounters, if we can call them that. It's hard to not see what happened here as having some pretty serious racial undercurrents.

BLACKISTONE: Oh, absolutely. You know, hair is a very cultural thing, particularly for people of color. Dreads are not just a hairstyle, it's also a lifestyle. It says something about you. My partner is - she used to wear dreads for a very long time. It's a lot of care. It's a lot of thought. It's a very long process. It's not as if you're just cutting off hair below your ear that'll grow back within the next week.

And when you look at that area of New Jersey, you look at that school population, you look at that video, you understand that there's no one within that picture, no one within that community - predominately white community, very small black population - who has any sensitivity towards what that referee did and what that young man had to suffer.

KING: I noticed when I was watching the response to this on Twitter, a lot of parents, particularly parents of color, got furious about this. If you're watching this video with kids, what do you tell them?

BLACKISTONE: You tell them that this should not have to happen to you, that this is almost akin to child abuse at this particular level. There need to be adults in that room who need to understand right from wrong and need to recognize that this is absolutely wrong, and it shouldn't happen. And I don't think we'll see it happen again.

KING: Kevin Blackistone is a sports columnist for The Washington Post, and he teaches journalism at the University of Maryland. Thank you.



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