The sporting world is never void of controversy and late December was no exception. The recent events where Andrew Johnson, a high school wrestler, was forced to cut his dreadlocks didn’t involve a well-known professional athlete, but was unfortunately another indication of a culture askew on the ever complicated issue of race. While many would say this was a blatant act of racism (and I would agree), it was also deeply troubling on a another personal level as it was a missed opportunity for many people to simply do the right thing for the emotional health of a young person.
Johnson was faced with an impossible choice for a young athlete, comply with an unfair rule or forfeit his match. The evidence in this case points to an abuse of power by the referee, Alan Maloney, who used his position to deliberately inflict harm on a young athlete because of his race and choice of hairstyle. When you look at the footage after the match, Johnson, who should be celebrating a victory, has the demeanor of someone who just lost- and in a way he did.
The astounding reality that cannot be over looked is that there were several significant failures in this chain of events that contributed to Johnson’s humiliation. Maloney was unfit to be a referee given his egregious actions in 2016 when he reportedly called another referee the N-word. Despite this documented transgression, the New Jersey Wrestling Officials Association failed to strip Maloney of his position. While certain decisions are subjective and controversial, this one should not have been. People with Maloney’s moral ineptitude should never be responsible for children. Period.
As a researcher specializing in adolescence and a former high school head coach, I believe the actions of Johnson’s coaches also deserve scrutiny. Whenever the dignity of an athlete is on the line, a coach should always protect the athlete, even if that means you have to forfeit the game. It didn’t matter if Johnson was “ok” with cutting his locks, the precedent it establishes undoubtedly harms the coach/athlete relationship. In my research on youth sports and the impact of positive social networks, I found that young athletes fare better when they have coaches who they believe support them emotionally by showing concern for their well-being and by being present with them in their time of need. A team built around these coaching fundamentals builds athletes who view life more positively and have better emotional health…not to mention actually perform better!!
Youth sports have frequently been assumed to enhance youth development, but the results from research does not always support this. Young athletes defining their identity and learning how the world works need role models and supportive adults who set good examples of how to live and show they care at every turn.
Imagine a scenario where Johnson’s coach says there’s no way Johnson will have his hair cut. The coach knows the rules and understands that the requested action of the referee was a overstep of power and racist. So for the sake of preserving the dignity of Johnson, they forfeit the match. Yet in this forfeit, Johnson’s coach provides his team with the opportunity to learn what it looks like to stand up against injustice; to sacrifice for a greater good. A coach takes a stand while the team is watching: young minds are influenced for the better. Johnson would walk away knowing his coach cared more about him than winning. The headline would look different and people around the globe would all learn a lesson.
Youth sports can lead young people to a place of good health and well-being when the circumstances are positive. But unsettling or unethical events also provide an opportunity for growth and learning. When students see coaches and other authority figures prioritize their well-being above everything else, that message will stick with those young athletes for a lifetime.