Nearly the entire Penn State community — coaches, fans, players and the athletic director — have rallied behind football co-captain Jonathan Sutherland, who recently received a critical letter from an alum that many have labeled “racist.”
In the letter, posted online Monday by defensive tackle Antonio Shelton, a 78-year-old Johnstown man criticized Sutherland for his dreadlocks, writing that they’re “disgusting,” “awful” and “not attractive.”
The letter-writer, Dave Petersen, confirmed Tuesday to the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat that he sent the letter. He said it was “not the intent” to make any racial statements. But, Shelton wrote on Twitter, “Explain to me how this isn’t racist.”
Penn State’s official Twitter account strongly condemned the letter Monday night, and Athletic Director Sandy Barbour tweeted her support for Sutherland on Tuesday morning. Head football coach James Franklin also chimed in Tuesday afternoon on the letter, which has gone viral and been talked about from coast to coast.
“The football that I know and love brings people together,” Franklin said during his weekly press conference. “ It embraces differences: Black, white, brown; Catholic, Jewish or Muslim; rich or poor, rural or urban, Republican or Democrat. Long hair, short hair, no hair. They’re all in that locker room together. Teams all over this country are the purest form of humanity that we have. We don’t judge; we embrace differences.”
The letter set off a firestorm of criticism, mostly directed at Petersen. Sutherland, a redshirt sophomore, was framed by Petersen as a disrespectful player who’s not among the “clean cut young men and women” from Petersen’s days. But, as Franklin noted, the safety is a Dean’s List student who wants to be a CEO one day.
Sutherland explained his dreadlocks in early September, saying he’s had them for close to 10 years. “I feel like it’s become part of my identity at this point,” Sutherland said at the time. “When I was a kid, my mom just braided my hair one day, and I just went with it.”
Sutherland’s teammates unanimously stood behind him.
“I’m pretty sure whoever wrote that letter, if you met him, you’d want your kid to be like Jonathan Sutherland,” defensive end Shaka Toney said. “So we’re going to ignore that and block the hate out. You can’t put energy into negative things.”
Added defensive tackle Fred Hansard: “It’s really disturbing for me to read but, at the end of the day, that’s his opinion. We don’t agree with it; a lot of people had a lot of things to say about it. At the end of the day, I’m behind Jonathan Sutherland. I’m his brother.”
Alumni like former quarterback Trace McSorley offered their support on Twitter. Websites such as The Root, a Black news blog and sister site of sports blog Deadspin, wrote a biting open letter from Sutherland’s dreadlocks to the Petersens. And Shelton’s original tweet has been favorited more than 52,000 times as of press time — and has received support from NFL alumni such as retired Indianapolis Colts punter Pat McAfee, who’s from Pittsburgh but played for West Virginia.
For his part, Sutherland — a backup safety and special teams co-captain — remained silent about the ordeal until the letter went viral Tuesday afternoon. He then released a statement on Twitter, quoting the Bible and thanking everyone for the support.
“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 wrong I’ve done in my life,” Sutherland wrote.
Offensive lineman Will Fries told reporters the incident helped show “we always have each other’s backs.” And linebacker Micah Parsons said Penn State will “come together even more” as a result of the intolerant comments.
And Toney, who had three sacks Saturday against Purdue, might’ve offered the best advice of all.
“Just make sure that you don’t stand for things like that,” Toney said. “You don’t have to publicly go out there and talk about it, but just don’t support stuff like that — hatred and things like that.
“People are going to live different, people are going to sound different — and it shouldn’t be a concern.”