Over the past week, the news has blown up over a video posted showing a black high school wrestler, Andrew Johnson, having his dreadlocks cut off just prior to a match by a white referee. The referee had claimed that Johnson’s hair length had violated National Federation of State High School Associations regulations regarding hair length of wrestlers. Despite that the rules stating that “If the hair in its natural state is longer than allowed by rule, then it must be contained in a legal hair cover.”

The referee, told Johnson that if he didn’t cut his hair, he would be forced to forfeit the match. Despite the athlete having preceded through the formal rule checks that normally take place prior to a match. Including weigh ins and uniform checks in which if such a violation were present, would normally be corrected. Such as with a “legal hair cover” as stated in the official rules. Choosing to go forward with the match, the referee took a pair of scissors and forcefully cut off the Johnson’s hair. The athlete proceeded with the match, which he won. But was visibly distraught by the preceding incident.

Upon winning the match, Johnson was hesitant to touch the referee’s hand during the salute. The white referee, Alan Maloney, has a history of using racial slurs. This latest incident has created backlash from parents, coaches, teammates, Olympian Jordan Burroughs, and New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy. Maloney has since been suspended pending an investigation into the incident by the New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association and the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights. This incident brings up a larger and reoccurring issue regarding the prevalence of racism in sports.

The constant conflict that black athletes often face when their racial-identity conflicts with their athletic identity. Most well-known case of course, is Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick, protested the systematic racism, oppression and injustice of black people by the police. Including several high-profile incidents in which a black person being shot by police in situations that required no such action. Kaepernick protested by kneeling during the national anthem prior to his games as a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers in 2016.

His protests drew a lot of ire from people, including Donald Trump, who hijacked Kaepernick’s message and used it against him. Leading to the end of his NFL career. Much of the criticism backlash was directed that sports and politics should not collide and that his activism was not appropriate on the football field. Despite a history of other players kneeling to share their own political messages, including Tim Tebow wearing Bible verses on his face and uniform while also kneeling to pray during NCAA and NFL Games. Tebow never drew the strong levels of backlash for his infusion of politics and sports that Kaepernick did. The more personal attacks against Kaepernick’s identity and character only validated his original message; Which was against the politic brutality and systematic oppression of black people. Unfortunately, racial politics have always collided with sports, sometimes literally.

In 2015, retired professional Tennis player James Black was tackled and body slammed by a plain clothed NYPD police officer as he was waiting outside his hotel for his car to go to the 2015 US Open Tennis Tournament. The officer had claimed he mistaken Blake for another suspect they were searching for. Despite Blake showing absolutely no resistance, interaction or even awareness of the cop nor the cop even talking or interacting with Blake in anyway. He was violently brought to the ground in an incident that has been used to show the level of racial profiling and excessive brutality against black people by the police. This incident motivated Blake to become an activist and published the book, Ways of Grace: Stories of Activism, Adversity, and How Sports Can Bring Us Together.” Which details the incident and offers stories of other athletes who have used their platform on sports to advocate for greater causes. These incidences of racial identity conflicting with sports show only scratch the surface of the underlying racism that is still so prevalent.

While some black athletes, like Michael Jordan, choose to avoid the discussion. There are others such John Carlos and Tommie Smith who use their platform to create the discussion. Sometimes, the discussion comes to the athletes, in the case of Serena Williams and the comic published after a match at the US open that has been criticized for its racial caricature of Williams. While some people might want more black athletes like Michael Jordan to avoid politics in sports. They are also the same people who bring it into sports, such as forcing an unwarranted haircut.

The case with Andrew Johnson shows that the underlying racism in sports that still exists. It may have just been one high school wrestling match, but it shows that we still have a big problem, and a long way to go in correcting it.

By Dirk Smith