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The policing of black hair in sports

Following his New Jersey high school wrestling match in the 120-pound weight division on Dec. 19, junior wrestler Andrew Johnson, clearly exhausted from a hard-fought win over his opponent, slowly picked himself up from the mat. With a bloody lower lip, Johnson removed his headgear from his cropped dreadlocks and walked gingerly over to the referee, Alan Maloney, who in normal circumstances would’ve raised Johnson’s hand in victory for a few seconds before moving on to the next bout.

But on this day, Johnson didn’t let Maloney touch him for more than a second before the high schooler walked away to join the rest of his teammates. Before the match had taken place, Maloney, who is white, forced Johnson, who is black, to decide between his hair and forfeiting the match.

According to the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) rule book, athletes with hair past their shirt collar must wear approved hair coverings. Johnson had 90 seconds to decide on the mat between acquiring proper headwear (it is unclear if Johnson possessed such equipment), a forfeit or cutting his long, locked hair.

Johnson chose the latter.

In cringeworthy video posted to social media, Johnson is shown standing in a gymnasium while a team employee uses scissors to cut his hair down to the back of his neck before the match. Johnson’s teammates walk by to touch him in support. Everyone in the frame expressing support for Johnson is white.

Black hair has always been a lightning rod issue that’s forced African-Americans to have to defend both their hairstyles and humanity. Whether in school, the military, police departments, award shows or the U.S. House of Representatives, black hairstyles — be it braids, twists, dreadlocks or fades — have been deemed unacceptable (or illegal) in society simply for being different.

It’s no different in the world of sports.

While his tattoos, upbringing and (unreleased) rap albums were a Bingo list of reasons former NBA player Allen Iverson was reviled by most of the country, the Hall of Famer’s hair was what made him one of the most divisive athletes of all time. Every era of professional basketball had its notable hair choices: Bill Russell’s goatee (controversial in and of itself), Julius Erving’s Afro, A.C. Green’s Jheri curl and Michael Jordan’s bald dome.

But Iverson represented the hip-hopification of professional basketball. A white America still reeling from Ice-T, N.W.A., and the media-driven East Coast-West Coast rivalry wanted nothing less than the visualizations of gang violence, expensive jewelry and sex to permeate the league of Bird, Magic and “Be Like Mike.”

But there he was, with his sleeve tattoos, baggy clothes and cornrows screaming I am here, do something about it. The son of Hampton, Virginia, used his braids to express himself and where he came from, but all most others could see was a thug trying to be a rapper. When Iverson and the 2004 men’s Olympic basketball team struggled in Athens, Greece, a (black) sports writer wrote that at least when the Ryder Cup team loses, “Tiger Woods has the good sense not to wear cornrows.” The NBA couldn’t ban hairstyles like Iverson’s, so it eventually settled on just regulating the types of clothes he and his ilk wore.

During that time, three grade-schoolers at a Philadelphia Catholic school were threatened with expulsion for “outlandish hairstyles.” The boys wore Afros. The same school had banned cornrows, as well, no doubt in part due to the diminutive star for the hometown 76ers.

During the 1999 NBA playoffs, basketball shoe brand AND1 debuted a commercial where New York Knicks guard Latrell Sprewell sits with his Afro out while a faceless black woman uses a rat tail comb to braid his hair. Two years earlier, Sprewell had choked Golden State Warriors coach P.J. Carlesimo at a team practice. Sports Illustrated placed Sprewell on its cover: Angry scowl. Flexed muscles. Tight cornrows. Angry black man. (The cover’s tagline read, in part, that Sprewell’s actions “raises other issues that could pose threats to the NBA’s future, issues of power and money and — most dangerous of all — race.”) At the end of the commercial, Sprewell, reminiscent of Charles Barkley proclaiming that he wasn’t “a role model,” stares directly at the camera to say: “Some people say I’m America’s worst nightmare. I say I’m the American dream.” Sprewell had said some words, but his hair did all the talking.

Black hair can also represent a plight of an entire people. It’s no coincidence that as former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s consciousness grew, so did his hair. In Kaepernick’s less controversial days (relatively speaking), he kept a low, fade hairstyle viewed as more professional and less controversial. But just as he audited courses at the University of California, Berkeley about Angela Davis, the Black Panthers, and Tommie Smith and John Carlos, he grew out an Afro that my colleague Soraya McDonald referred to as a “defiant embrace of militancy” not “interested in acquiescing to white guilt or discomfort.”

Maloney, the New Jersey referee, may have only been considering the federation’s guidelines while ruling that Johnson had to decide between his record or his hair; previous accusations of racist behavior hurt his argument. But what he and the rest of the NJSIAA fail to realize is that a system that polices hair is a system that could potentially penalize black people. It may take a black kid literally giving up a piece of himself for them to finally realize that.

Martenzie is a senior researcher for The Undefeated. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said "Y'all want to see somethin?"