BUENA VISTA – The Buena Regional School District’s superintendent says he canceled a wrestling match hours before athletes were scheduled to take the mat because state-level officials couldn’t clarify rules about competitors’ hair.
The Chiefs have been in the national spotlight since Dec. 19, when wrestler Andrew Johnson was told he didn’t have the proper headgear to compete against Oakcrest High School due to his dreadlocks. Referee Alan Maloney gave the junior two choices moments before the match: Cut his hair or forfeit.
Johnson opted to have his dreadlocks trimmed at the side of the mat, and video of the incident has sparked an ongoing national discussion with racial implications that has attracted the attention of politicians, civil rights activists and an Olympic gold medalist wrestler, among others. Johnson is multiracial, and Maloney made headlines in 2016 when the Courier-Post reported he used the N-word during a dispute with a fellow referee who is black.
On Wednesday evening, Buena was scheduled to wrestle against Absegami in the Chiefs’ first home match since the haircut incident. But it was canceled, initially without explanation, that afternoon.
Superintendent David Cappuccio Jr. on Thursday released a public letter explaining his decision, blaming a lack of clarity about the rule regarding wrestlers’ hair length and style three weeks after the controversy began.
“Without written clarification relative to the interpretation of (the rule), I was not willing to allow our student-athletes to be subjected to any potential dispute, embarrassment, or misapplication of the rule,” Superintendent David Cappuccio Jr. said in the letter.
An attorney for Johnson, Dominic A. Speziali, claimed in a letter to the civil rights division that the official assigned to the Absegami match contacted Buena athletic director Dave Albertson this week regarding his client. “The referee advised – a day before the match, and without even seeing Andrew – that he planned to require Andrew to wear a hair covering if he intended on wrestling.”
Cappuccio’s letter did not specifically confirm the referee’s contact but said that, on Tuesday, “our administration received information which raised concerns regarding the lack of consistent application and interpretation of the current wrestling rules, specifically Rule 4-2-1 involving wrestlers’ hair.”
The district then reached out to the NJSIAA and the New Jersey Wrestling Officials Association, both of whom then contacted the National Federation of State High School Associations, according to Cappuccio.
There was no written clarification by early Wednesday afternoon, he said.
“Given the time constraints facing the district with an impending wrestling match scheduled for that evening, and after consultation with our high school administration, I determined that it was in the best interests of our student-athletes and staff to postpone the wrestling match,” the superintendent explained in his letter.
Later in the afternoon, the district received a written statement from the NFHS national wrestling rules interpreter that clarifies the rule is “solely based on length, not style” of hair, Cappuccio said.
“Our administration was informed that every chapter of wrestling officials associations, as well as every individual wrestling official, has been informed of this clarification,” he wrote. “Given our receipt of this information, it is our intent for our team to re-engage in competition immediately.