Sidetrack: amateur sports ethics

This post is triggered by an unfortunate national news item that happened here in southern New Jersey. I do occasionally publish an off-topic post here.

For what it’s worth, I consider myself to be a student of sports ethics. Yes, it is a ‘thing’ with some useful books on the topic. but mostly a topic that I studied decades ago in graduate school. Based on my interest in the topic, I was informally consulted by other coaches and competitors within my wrestling leagues when we occasionally found an unethical or racist referee. After I quit coaching around 2003 I took referee training and considered being a referee but ultimately decided not to be involved. Simply stated, the stereotypical southern New Jersey referees who I knew personally were not much concerned with issues like ethics or discrimination and were far more concerned about feeding their egos. I guess, subconsciously, my decision to not become a referee was because I did not wish to be associated with that type of image. Of course not all referees were like this but the overall atmosphere disturbed me. Also at that time Title 9 was a hot topic and my equal opportunity opinions differed from the sexist opinions of my peers).

But here is the thing: One of the most deeply ingrained principles of amateur sportsmanship is that the referee is in total control of the sports event and the physical site with regard to the sports contest. It is, by design, not a Democratic setting. The rules clearly do give the referee discretion to exercise discriminatory enforcement of the hair length rule. Any adult or coach or school official would be out of order to challenge the referee and could, under the rules, cause the team to forfeit the entire match. The recourse for the competitor who disagrees with the referee is to politely forfeit his match. It is disturbing when I read comments that adults should have forcibly confronted the referee in this sad incident. That would have been even worse.

As a competitor and coach for more than 30 years in this sport I’ve seen far more egregious cases of hair incidents that did not get national news coverage due to social media. I’ve even had to have the trainer cut my modestly long hair a handful of times to avoid forfeit in both US and international competitions. In the majority of cases it was obviously discriminatory action by the referee. (For example, my vocal anti-war political views were a problem when competing in a government venue with the referee a military officer). Once I was confronted with potential disqualification by Soviet Union referee when competing in an international competition in New York City. He didn’t like a political T-shirt I was wearing even though it was in a hallway outside the competition floor. I changed my shirt. I’m not defending the referee in this case, just noting that the world has changed.

Finally, keep in mind this section of southern New Jersey is considered a national hot-spot of KKK and white supremacy group activity so these types of incidents and allegations are not necessarily rare or isolated to the sport of wrestling. Sadly, we don’t have to look further back than last month’s election rhetoric for evidence that racism is alive and well. (I’ve covered far more blatant issues of this localized south Jersey racism in past personal blog posts).


A photo taken in the year of perhaps my most vocal activist stage when I used the sport, my clothes, my hair and beard, etc. as an platform for expression of social protest. I was the editor of the college newspaper and known as a social activist. Even though I was the only All-American on the team, I was not elected as it’s captain mostly because of my unconventional outspoken actions.

At a recent team reunion, few of us have to worry about long hair issues anymore.


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