Penn State football coach James Franklin read an impassioned statement Tuesday in defense of his team and one of his players who was singled out for criticism of his dreadlocks in a letter from a person describing himself as “a proud ‘older’ graduate of Penn State.”
Franklin opened his weekly media teleconference with the two-minute statement in response to the letter sent to safety and co-captain Jonathan Sutherland. The letter was made public Monday on Twitter by Nittany Lions defensive tackle Antonio Shelton and touched off a firestorm of criticism, particularly by Sutherland’s teammates.
Sutherland, a redshirt sophomore from Ottawa, Ontario, also put out a statement Tuesday that said that while the letter was “indeed rude, ignorant and judging, I’ve taken no personal offense to it” and that he forgave the writer.
The Johnstown Tribune-Democrat identified the letter writer as David Petersen, of Johnstown, a 1966 Penn State graduate. Petersen told the newspaper that making a racial statement “was not the intent at all. I would just like to see the coaches get the guys cleaned up and not looking like Florida State and Miami guys.”
In tweeting a photo of the letter, Shelton commented: “Explain to me how this isn’t racist.” Shelton’s tweet attracted nearly 14,000 retweets and more than 46,000 likes as of Tuesday afternoon.
In his letter, Petersen lamented the loss of “the clean-cut young men and women” from “my days,” and then went on to criticize Sutherland’s hair.
“We couldn’t help but notice your — well — awful hair,” the letter read. “Surely there must be mirrors in the locker room! Don’t you have parents or a girlfriend who have told you those shoulder-length dreadlocks disgusting (sic) and are certainly not attractive?”
The letter went on to criticize “disgusting tattoos, awful hair and immature antics in the end zone.”
Sutherland put out a statement on Twitter in which he called “degrading” the opinion of Petersen “in regards to my hair and what it stands for.”
But, he added, “At the end of the day, without an apology needed, I forgive this individual because I’m nowhere close to being perfect and I expect God to forgive me for all the wrongs I’ve done in my life.”
He said the letter was “one of the many examples to us that in the year 2019, people of different cultures, religions and ethnicities are still being discriminated against, and it needs to stop. Don’t be scared to be different.”
Franklin, in his opening remarks, did not address the letter directly but outlined how “the football that I know and love brings people together and embraces differences” regardless of race, religion, background, political party or whether someone has “long hair, short hair, no hair.”
“Teams all over this country are the purest form of humanity that we have,” he said. “We don’t judge. We embrace differences. We live. We learn. We grow. We support and defend each other. We’re a family.”
He said that Penn State football provides “the same opportunities to embrace one another 12 Saturdays each fall” and that it “brings people together like very few things on this planet.”
“This is my football,” he said. “This is the game that I love and, most importantly, my players that I love and will defend like sons. Ultimately, this is the definition and embodiment of what ‘We Are’ is all about.”
Franklin appeared to be getting emotional speaking about Sutherland, whom he called “one of the most respected players in our program … the ultimate example of what our program is all about.
“He’s a captain,” he said. “He’s a dean’s list honor student. He’s confident, he’s articulate, he’s intelligent, he’s thoughtful, he’s caring, and he’s committed. He’s got two of the most supportive parents. And I would be so blessed if my daughters would marry someone with his character and integrity.”
Penn State responded to the letter on the university’s official Twitter account, saying, “We strongly condemn this message or any message of intolerance.”
Vice president of athletics Sandy Barbour tweeted her support Tuesday of the Penn State football players.
“I stand with our Penn State student athletes and appreciate how they represent PSU in competition, in the classroom and in the community,” she wrote. “Their dress, tattoos, or hairstyle has no impact on my support, nor does their gender, skin color, sexuality or religion!”
Sutherland said in an interview last month that his dreadlocks have “become a part of my identity at this point."
“I’ve had my hair for like 10 years now, going on 10 years,” he said. “When I was a kid, my mom just braided my hair one day and I just went with it.”
Penn State defensive end Shaka Toney, an Imhotep Charter graduate, called Sutherland “a model football player.”
“He’s somebody that does everything right,” Toney said Tuesday on a conference call. "He’s one of those guys that’s really mature, a pro’s pro, some would say. He does well in school. He’s already a captain and he’s only a sophomore.