Penn State football players, coaches and the community are rallying to support Jonathan Sutherland after the star safety got a letter criticizing him for the long dreadlocks he says are part of his identity.
Sutherland’s teammate, defensive tackle Antonio Shelton, posted a photograph of the letter on Twitter on Monday and asked for someone to “explain to me how this isn’t racist.“
The letter writer claimed that he and his wife were “proud ‘older’ graduates of Penn state.”
The man wrote that he couldn’t help noticing Sutherland’s “awful hair” during the home opener against the University of Idaho.
Sutherland had three tackles and blocked two punts in the Nittany Lions’ 79-7 win, but the letter focused on insulting his appearance. Penn State is now 5-0 and ranked Number 10 in The Associated Press Top 25.
The man said he missed “the clean cut men and women,” who were athletes in his day and wished for a return of athlete dress codes.
Sutherland said he forgave the letter writer on Tuesday in a Twitter post and thanked fans for their support.
“Although the message was indeed rude, ignorant and judging, I’ve taken no personal offense to it because personally, I must respect you as a person before I respect your opinion,” he wrote. “At the end of the day, without an apology given 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.”
Penn State said that it can not confirm if the letter is authentic, or if the author was really an alumni, but it condemned the letter on Twitter.
“While we don’t know the source of this letter or the authenticity, obviously its content does not align with our values. We strongly condemn this message or any message of intolerance.”
Penn State Coach James Franklin said that the game he loves brings people of all different backgrounds together — both in the stands and in the locker room.
“Teams all over this country are the purest form of humanity that we have,” Franklin said at a Tuesday news conference. “We don’t judge, we embrace differences, we live, we learn, we grow, we support and we defend each other. We’re a family.”
He said Sutherland was chosen to be a team captain, made the dean’s list, had great parents and was one of the most respected members of the program.
“I would be so blessed if my daughters would marry someone with his character and integrity,” Franklin said.
Sutherland is a junior from Ottawa, Canada, who was redshirted as a freshman.
He was asked about his hair earlier this season and said he’s worn it this way since he was a kid.
“I’ve had my hair for like ten years now, going on ten years. I feel like it’s become a part of my identity at this point. When I was a kid my mom just braided my hair one day and I just went with it,” he said.