The letter found its way into the hands of Penn State safety Jonathan Sutherland last October, a couple of days after the Nittany Lions improved their record to 5-0. The stationery sported the heading “We Are Penn State Proud!” and was neatly typed, but the words were hurtful.
A 1966 Penn State graduate criticized what he called the “awful” and “disgusting” dreadlocks sported by Sutherland, a Canadian of African descent. The letter sparked outrage throughout the football team, including a passionate statement by head coach James Franklin, who said he would be “so blessed if my daughters would marry someone with his character and integrity one day.”
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Sutherland called the letter “rude, ignorant and judging” but quickly forgave the writer. The whole episode was more than nine months ago, but he still has the letter.
“When I first read the letter, it was upsetting and everything,” Sutherland said Thursday in a Zoom conference call with reporters. “I feel like having it reminds me of all the support that I got and how much we as a society need to progress in the right direction.
“I feel that the support I got from my teammates and everyone in this organization was great. I didn’t feel alone at all. Everyone had my back, and everyone was willing to fight for me. It was really supporting, and I appreciated it for sure.”
That support and togetherness continues in the current troubled times, given the pandemic and the nationwide protests over social injustice since the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man, while in the custody of Minneapolis police.
Sutherland and most of his teammates have been back on campus for less than a month, but they had stayed in touch virtually from their homes, discussing the issues.
“I think our team’s done a great job with that,” said Sutherland, a redshirt junior. “We’ve had many Zoom meetings throughout the past couple of months, where more than two-thirds of the team got together to discuss what’s going on in our country.
“We have guys from all different cultures, all different ethnicities on the team. It’s a conversation that needs to be had and has been had. We’ve had great dialogue with one another expressing the concerns, expressing how one may be feeling, what we can do overall to educate ourselves and try to fight this racial inequality that’s going on in this country.”
Sutherland also appreciates the input of Franklin, who is African American, and his staff, in having what he called “tough conversations” with players about race and inequality.
“We’ve had Zoom meetings just so we can talk about these issues,” he said. “I don’t think a lot of programs in the country have done that. That’s just one example of our coaches being great role models and allowing us to have these conversations that need to be had.”
A standout on special teams last year and a team captain, Sutherland endured an adventurous return to campus a few weeks ago. He and teammate and countryman Jesse Luketa got a ride to the U.S. border, where they had to wait for a Penn State representative to pick them up and take them to Happy Valley.
The main concern now is the continued rise in COVID-19 cases and how the virus threatens the football season. Two hours after Sutherland spoke to the media, the Big Ten announced that competition in football and other fall sports would be conference-only.
“If the season doesn’t end up happening, not even for me, the whole team, we put in so much work, and not being able to play would be horrible, because all that hard work kind of went into nothing,” Sutherland said. “As far as the season occurring in the spring, if that’s what we have to do, that’s what we’re going to have to adapt to.”
Then there is the apprehension of going up against another team that might not have stayed healthy. Sutherland cited the fact that North Carolina recently suspended workouts after 37 coaches, staff, and players tested positive for the coronavirus.
In the meantime, he will continue to work toward taking the starting safety spot left vacant by the graduation of Garrett Taylor and make the best of an uncertain situation.