After South Jersey wrestler’s forced haircut, coaches may get sensitivity training

Jun 27, 2019

The New Jersey General Assembly will vote Thursday on a measure to mandate sensitivity training for high school coaches, athletic staff, and officials.

Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly, D-Passaic, who is also a high school football coach, said enduring racist behavior as a player prompted him to sponsor the legislation.

“I dealt with being called racially insensitive names during games. I saw impartial — preferential officiating by officials,” Wimberly said. “The other concern was many coaches thought they weren’t getting opportunities [to be a head coach] because they were minorities or because of their gender.”

Wimberly said he introduced the bill in part based on the treatment of Buena wrestler Andrew Johnson.

Video of the incident went viral in the winter, showing a white referee forcing Johnson, who is biracial, to cut his dreadlocks or forfeit the match. A dejected-looking Johnson allowed his hair to be cut and went on to win the bout.

The state Attorney General’s Office and the New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association are currently investigating. The referee has been barred from officiating until the investigation is concluded.

Ellen Staurowsky, a professor of sports management at Drexel University, said racism in high school and college athletics persists.

“We know of cases where female athletes have been pressured not to wear their hair in cornrows,” Staurowsky said. “We’ve had men of color who have been pressured to not wear dreadlocks or to not wear an afro.”

The legislation would mandate sensitivity training in areas such as gender, race, disability, religion, and unconscious bias.

The General Assembly will vote on the bill (A4679) during its full session Thursday. The state Senate has not acted on identical legislation.

Earlier this month, a slate of New Jersey lawmakers introduced a separate bill that would ban discrimination on the basis of someone’s hair. Legislatures in California and New York state have passed similar measures.