A wrestling referee who forced a high school athlete to cut his dreadlocks or forfeit a match in December has been suspended for two seasons. State officials also have implemented new policies that will protect players who wear hairstyles associated with being black.

The state Division on Civil Rights on Wednesday issued its Guidance on Race Discrimination Based on Hairstyle, which cautions that racial bias includes discrimination based on a trait “inextricably intertwined with or closely associated with race.” That includes hairstyles such as twists, braids, cornrows, Afros, locs, Bantu knots and fades, which are closely associated with black people.

An agreement between the division and the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, the governing body of high school sports, seeks to "eliminate any interpretation of Rule 4.2.1 that allowed wrestling officials to determine that traditionally Black hairstyles were ‘unnatural’ or to subject wrestlers with traditionally Black hairstyles to differential treatment as to when a haircover was required.”

Amirah Vann
Amirah Vann. Photo: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

The state on Wednesday said that National Federation of State High School Associations Rule 4.2.1 governs the length of an athlete's hair and the use of a hair cover but that the rule had often been interpreted to require coverings for traditional black hairstyles regardless of length.

“Discrimination against black people because of their hair, which is often based on stereotypes that traditionally black hairstyles are 'unprofessional' or 'unkempt,' is a persistent form of anti-Black racism,” Division on Civil Rights Director Rachel Wainer Apter said Wednesday.

“This guidance makes clear that employers, housing providers and places of public accommodation cannot police black hair," she added. "And the [memorandum of understanding] will ensure that high school athletes across the state can focus on being their best, not worrying that their hair will subject them to differential treatment based on race."

Jason Derulo
Jason Derulo. Photo: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP
Nile Rodgers
Musician Nile Rodgers reacts to photographers at the 2016 EBONY Power 100 Gala. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

The agreement with NJSIAA calls for implicit bias training for all high school sports officials as well as training for rules interpreters to make sure that calls on hair are based on length, not style.

Buena Regional student Andrew Johnson, who is of mixed race, had to have his dreadlocks cut in a slapdash fashion minutes before the Dec. 19 match.

Referee Alan Maloney had said that Johnson's hair covering was not good enough based on the hair rule.

Widely circulated video drew outrage over the call and led to a state civil rights investigation.

Earlier this year, Maloney threatened to sue the state and the NJSIAA on grounds of defamation.

In July, Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, D-Hudson, introduced a bill that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of hair style, type, or texture under the state's law against discrimination. She cited the wrestling incident as an inspiration for the proposal.

The state's guidance further cautions that “just as it would likely violate the LAD to refuse to hire an Orthodox Jewish man because he wears payot, or to refuse to hire a Muslim woman because she wears a hijab, or to refuse to hire a Sikh person because they wear uncut hair, it is unlawful to refuse to hire or to otherwise treat a Black person differently because they wear their hair in a style that is closely associated with being Black.”

Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email sergio.bichao@townsquaremedia.com.

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