Ronn Torossian
Ronn Torossian

High school sports have rules, which typically include dress code and uniform standards. Student-athletes generally are aware of the rules in advance, and choose to abide by them or face a stated penalty. But a recent incident at a New Jersey high school has people talking, and it’s triggered a heated debate regarding how far a school can go to enforce policy … and who gets to decide.

The story begins with high school wrestler Andrew Johnson, who typically wears dreadlocks. Just prior to a recent match, referee Alan Maloney told Johnson he had to cut his hair or forfeit the match. Johnson said he had a cover for his locks, but Maloney said that wasn’t adequate.

Cue the video of Johnson’s hair being cut so he’d be allowed to compete. As you can guess, outraged ensued, and now the entire school district is being forced to answer for a call made by one referee.

According to the Johnson family representation, Maloney failed to attend the pre-match weigh-in, and, though he’d “evaluated” Johnson prior to the match, failed to say anything about his hair at that time.

Since the uproar, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association is trying desperately to contain and control the narrative. A spokesman, Michael Cherenson, told the media that Maloney wouldn’t be officiating any matches until “the incident is reviewed.”

That “incident,” though, has been “reviewed” countless times on social media, after being first tweeted out by a lone SNJ Today reporter. Critics of the referee have called the incident many things, including “cruel,” “humiliating” and “racist.”

In response, Andrew’s parents thanked critics for their support, posting: “Andrew has been deeply moved by the thunderous outpouring of unsolicited support — including from an Olympic wrestler, leading civil rights advocates and elected officials — after the shocking pre-match ultimatum … Wrestling has taught Andrew to be resilient in the face of adversity. As we move forward, we are comforted by both the strength of Andrew’s character and the support he’s received from the community.”

In this narrative, the Johnsons are clearly the sympathetic victims of “cruel” and potentially “racist” school officials. These are the allegations the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association will have to face going forward, as the Johnson family continues to receive widespread support.

While they have yet to respond, the NJSIAA would be best served not to drag out its investigation into the incident too long. With each passing day, the sympathy for the shorn wrestler and condemnation of the athletic association only continues to grow.


Ronn Torossian is CEO of NYC PR Agency 5WPR.