A Penn State alumnus and football fan chided a Nittany Lions player for wearing his hair in “disgusting” dreadlocks, sparking an outpouring of support for the student-athlete from his teammates and the school.
The letter that was addressed to “Dear Jonathan,” presumably to Penn State safety Jonathan Sutherland, was posted on social media by teammate Antonio Shelton on Monday night. Sutherland is a defensive standout who wears his hair in dreadlocks.
One of my teammates got this. Explain to me how this isn’t racist. pic.twitter.com/Qms1F6DEEP
— Antonio Shelton (@_thegroovyone) October 7, 2019
“Though the athletes of today are certainly superior to those in my days, we miss the clean-cut young men and women from those days,” the letter, signed by Dave Petersen, said.
“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 have told you those shoulder-length dreadlocks look disgusting and are certainly not attractive?”
Shelton’s post of the letter asked, “Explain to me how this isn’t racist.”
In a statement posted on Twitter on Tuesday afternoon, Sutherland called the letter “degrading” and “was indeed rude, ignorant and judging.”
“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. “I appreciate everyone who has reached out to me and showed their support.”
The student-athlete ended his statement, “Don’t be scared to be different,” with emojis of a heart and Christian cross.
— Jonathan Sutherland (@jay_suth) October 8, 2019
NBC News was not able to immediately reach Petersen for comment.
Penn State coach James Franklin gave his full-throated support for Sutherland.
“Jonathan Sutherland is one of the most respected players in our program. He’s an ultimate example of what our program is all about,” Franklin told reporters on Tuesday.
“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.,” Franklin said.
The coach insisted that none of Sutherland’s teammates care about the length or style of his hair.
“The football that I know and love brings people together and embraces differences — black, white, brown, Catholic, Jewish or Muslim, rich or poor, rural or urban, Republican or Democrat, long hair, short hair, no hair,” Franklin said, running his right hand over his clean-shaven scalp.
“We don’t judge, we embrace differences. We live. We learn. We grow. We support and we defend each other. We’re a family.”
Another teammate, defensive tackle Aeneas Hawkins, called Sutherland a “blueprint” of the “highest standard in the classroom, community, and with his teammates on the field or off.”
“This letter is intolerable, your discomfort is disgusting, and you don’t deserve to be ‘represented’ by a man with character as spectacular as #26,” Hawkins wrote on Twitter, of his teammate Sutherland.
I stand with our Penn State student athletes and appreciate how they represent PSU in competition, in the classroom and in the community. Their dress, tattoos, or hairstyle has no impact on my support, nor does their gender, skin color, sexuality or religion! #WeAre #ONETEAM🦁
— Sandy Barbour (@SandyB_PSUAD) October 8, 2019
The school also rallied around Sutherland, a sophomore born in Ottawa, Ontario, before graduating from Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia.
“I stand with our Penn State student athletes and appreciate how they represent PSU in competition, in the classroom and in the community,” Athletic Director Sandy Barbour wrote on Twitter. “Their dress, tattoos, or hairstyle has no impact on my support, nor does their gender, skin color, sexuality or religion!”
The Nittany Lions have won their first five games of this young season and are ranked No. 10 nationally in the latest Associated Press poll. Penn State next plays Iowa, which ranks 17, Saturday.