STATE COLLEGE – As Penn State head coach James Franklin lay in bed on Monday night, Iowa, his team’s upcoming opponent, was pushed to the back of his conscious.
The six-year Nittany Lions head coach instead poured over his thoughts and a response to the letter received by his player, Jonathan Sutherland.
The full-page letter, shared via Twitter on Monday by defensive lineman Antonio Shelton, chastised Sutherland’s dreadlocks hairstyle, calling it “disgusting” and advocated for the implementation of a “dress code for athletes.”
Sutherland is black.
On Tuesday, Franklin walked into Penn State’s media room just after 12:30 p.m. He sported a Penn State sweatshirt and a stoic demeanor. He pulled his chair from behind the podium, sat down and shared the words he scrawled on paper the night before.
“The football that I know and love brings people together, and embraces differences,” Franklin said. “Black, white, brown, Catholic, Jewish or Muslim, rich or poor, rural or urban, Republican or Democrat, long hair, short hair, no hair.
“They are 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. We live, we learn, we grow, we support and we defend each other. We’re a family.”
Franklin is just one of 13 African-American head coaches in the FBS. There are 130 FBS programs.
Sutherland broke his silence on Tuesday afternoon in a Twitter post.
“Yesterday I received a letter by an alumni from the Pennsylvania State University who felt the need to share his degrading opinions in regards to my hair and what it stands for. 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 continued, “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 also thanked those who have rallied by his side and called for an end to all forms of discrimination.
The (Johnstown, Pa.) Tribune-Democrat is reporting the letterwriter is David Peterson of Johnstown. Petersen, a 1966 Penn State graduate in speech pathology, said he did send a letter to player Jonathan Sutherland in which Petersen communicated that he thought the player’s “shoulder-length dreadlocks look disgusting.”
Petersen wrote to Sutherland: “You need to remember you represent all Penn Staters both current and those alumni from years past. We would welcome the reappearance of dress codes for athletes.”
The letter also said Petersen expected Sutherland to “be playing ‘on Sunday’ in the future but we have stopped watching the NFL due to the disgusting, tattoos, awful hair and immature antics in the end zone. Players should act as though they’ve ‘been there before.’”
Reached by phone on Tuesday, Petersen said making a racial or cultural 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.”
The groundswell of support for Sutherland has come from those in and outside of the program.
Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour on Tuesday morning tweeted, “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!”
Penn State offensive lineman Will Fries said adversity only brings the team closer. Fries’ locker is located next to Sutherland’s.
“He’s really the gold standard of character in our locker room,” Fries said. “He’s an outstanding, not only player but just human being in general… His character is extremely high. (He) takes pride in academics and things like that. He’s my locker neighbor, and I’m proud to be next to him because he’s an outstanding human being.”
For Nittany Lion linebacker Micah Parsons, the incident has galvanized the locker room.
“… If Jonathan is going through it emotionally, we’ll carry him throughout the whole time, and make sure he’s okay and things like that,” Parsons said. “We’re just going to come together even more and just be the brotherhood that we are.”
Note: Chip Minemyer, editor of The (Johnstown) Tribune-Democrat, contributed to this story.
ELTON HAYES covers Penn State sports for CNHI. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.