Penn State coach James Franklin on Tuesday denounced a letter that was sent to one of his players that members of the team have interpreted as being racist.
Safety Jonathan Sutherland received a letter from a Penn State alum that was critical of his appearance and said his “shoulder length dreadlocks look disgusting.”
“Jonathan Sutherland is one of the most respected players in our program,” Franklin said in defense of his player at his weekly news conference. “He’s the ultimate example of what our program is all about. He’s a captain, 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 one day.”
In the letter, written by Johnstown, Pennsylvania, resident Dave Petersen, Sutherland’s hair, appearance and demeanor are criticized. Petersen said in the letter that he and his wife “…miss the clean cut young men and women from those days. Watching the Idaho game on TV we couldn’t help but notice your — well — awful hair. Surely there must be mirrors in the locker room! Don’t you have parents or [a] girlfriend who’ve told you those shoulder length dreadlocks look disgusting and are certainly not attractive.”
Petersen also wrote that while he believes Sutherland will be “playing ‘on Sunday'” someday, he and his wife “have stopped watching the NFL due to the disgusting tattoos, awful hair and immature antics in the end zone.”
Sutherland’s teammates, including defensive lineman Antonio Shelton, made the letter public through social media, and it has since gone viral. Shelton’s tweet had over 13,700 retweets and 46,200 likes on Twitter as of Tuesday afternoon.
In his own Twitter statement Tuesday, Sutherland called Petersen’s opinions “degrading,” but said that he has taken “no personal offense.”
— Jonathan Sutherland (@jay_suth) October 8, 2019
The Tribune-Democrat, a newspaper in Johnstown, spoke with Petersen about the letter and how it has spread far and wide on the internet. Petersen said he did not intend for the letter to have a racist message.
“Was not the intent at all,” Petersen told the Tribune-Democrat. “I would just like to see the coaches get the guys cleaned up and not looking like Florida State and Miami guys.”
Petersen added that his letter “wasn’t threatening or anything. I was just disgruntled about some of the hairdos that we’re seeing. You think of Penn State as a bunch of clean-cut guys. And you do see so many who are clean cut. But the tattoos and the hair — there are a lot of guys with hair coming down their backs and it just looks awful. And it’s the same for the NFL and NBA, too.”
Regardless of whether it was Petersen’s intent, the Penn State football players have taken the letter as an attack on them and who they are.
Penn State University responded to the letter via Twitter, saying the university strongly condemns the message or any message of intolerance. A university spokesperson told ESPN that school officials were made aware of the letter via Twitter and stand behind their student-athletes.
“At Penn State we strive to create an atmosphere that promotes inclusivity and respect,” the spokesperson said. “The well-being of students, faculty and staff members is the university’s priority. As part of this, Penn State provides a range of assistance and resources for students and employees, and we encourage any community member who needs support to reach out.”
Franklin echoed the university’s message in his news conference Tuesday, saying the Penn State community and football program are about inclusion and bringing people together.
Penn State football has “110,000 fans from all different backgrounds, throughout our region, from all different parts of the state, and they’re hugging and high-fiving and singing ‘Sweet Caroline’ together,” Franklin said. “This is my football. This is the game that I love and most importantly my players I love, and will defend like sons.”