On September 18, 2019, the New Jersey Attorney General announced that the Division on Civil Rights (DCR) had concluded its investigation into the December 19, 2018 incident involving a Buena Regional High School wrestler forced by a referee to cut his hair prior to a match in order to avoid a forfeit. In that case, the referee ruled that the wrestler’s hairstyle, as opposed to the length of his hair, violated National Federation of High School Association’s (NFHS) rule 4.2.1, which governs the length of an athlete’s hair and requires a hair covering in certain circumstances. The referee in this case ruled that no appropriate hair cover was available prior to the match, and as such, the student wrestler would have to cut his hair or forfeit the match.
In that case, the referee ruled that the wrestler’s “locs” (a more modern term for dreadlocks) violated National Federation of High School Association’s rule 4.2.1, which governs the length of an athlete’s hair and requires a hair covering in certain circumstances. The referee in this case ruled that no appropriate hair cover was available, and said the student wrestler would have to cut his hair or forfeit the match.
As a result of the nine-month investigation, several things occurred. The referee in question was suspended from referee duties for two wrestling seasons. Additionally, the investigation resulted in implicit bias training for officials and staff involved in high school athletics to be fully available by the end of the 2020-21 school year.
The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) and the Division on Civil Rights entered into a memorandum of agreement with the intent of ensuring that high school sports is free of bias and open on equal terms without regard to race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, disability, or other protected characteristics.
DCR also issued a new directive entitled, “Guidance on Race Discrimination Based on Hairstyle.” This memorandum discusses New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (LAD) and provides a detailed history of discrimination based on hairstyles while noting that bias can take many forms including explicit or implicit, conscious or unconscious. Specifically, the guidance states, “[t]hat means that as a general matter, …places of public accommodation covered by the LAD—including schools—may not enforce grooming or appearance policies that ban, limit, or restrict …hairstyles closely associated with …ethnic identity. Any policy specifically singling out such a hairstyle will generally constitute direct evidence of disparate treatment under the LAD and unlawful discrimination on the basis of race.”
Any questions should be directed to your school board attorney or to NJSBA’s Department of Legal and Labor Relations at (609) 278-5254.