A letter with racial undertones sent from a Penn State alum to a current player drew a strong reaction on social media Monday.
James Franklin had some impassioned comments Tuesday afternoon in defense of his team and that player, sophomore co-captain Jonathan Sutherland, who was criticized by the letter writer for his dreadlocks.
The Nittany Lions’ sixth-year head coach authored a statement and one of the most powerful moments of his tenure, leading off his weekly press conference not by blasting the letter’s author or by even mentioning its content, but by highlighting the atmosphere of inclusiveness and togetherness his program and the sport it plays has developed among so many others.
“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. ... 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 defend each other. We’re a family.
“This is my football. This is the game that I love and most importantly, my players that I love and will defend like sons. Ultimately, this is the definition and embodiment of what ‘We Are’ is all about.”
The letter was shared Monday on Twitter by Penn State players Antonio Shelton and C.J. Holmes. Its author — confirmed by the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat to be 1966 Penn State graduate and Johnstown native David Petersen — wrote “you need to remember you represent all Penn Staters both current and those alumni from years past,” and that he found Sutherland’s shoulder-length dreadlocks to be “disgusting, that he found tattoos “disgusting” and would “welcome the reappearance of dress codes for athletes.”
“Explain to me how this isn’t racist,” Shelton asked on Twitter with an image of the letter.
The tweets drew a groundswell of outrage from across the country in support of Sutherland. Franklin called him “the ultimate example of what our program is all about,” citing his work in the classroom — he’s a Dean’s List student — and the fact that he is so respected by teammates, they voted him a captain before the season.
“I would be so blessed if my daughters would marry someone with his character and integrity one day,” he added.
Sutherland responded to the letter through his Twitter account Tuesday after the press conference, calling the message “rude, ignorant and judging.” But, he added that he forgives Petersen for sending it even without an apology because he, himself, is “nowhere close to being perfect.”
“I appreciate everyone who has reached out to me and (shown) their support,” Sutherland wrote. “Let this be one of the many examples to us that, in the year 2019, people of different cultures, religions and ethnicities are still being discriminated against, and it needs to stop.”
When contacted Tuesday, Petersen told Johnson Tribune-Democrat editor Chip Minemyer that making a cultural or racial 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,” Petersen told the Tribune-Democrat. “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.”
Penn State University issued a statement on the school’s Twitter account condemning the letter and “any message of intolerance.”
Midwest is rest
Trips to the Midwest — especially when they precede Saturday night games — typically provide Penn State’s coaching staff with opportunities to recruit potential recruits in action on Friday nights.
That won’t be the case this weekend, even with their kickoff against Iowa set for 7:30 p.m.
Friday night will instead be used to have some extra meetings, watch more film and get ready for a big game, among one other more important matter.
“To be honest with you, it’s allowing the coaches and staff to sleep in a little bit,” Franklin said. “We grind at it pretty good. That Saturday morning, even if it’s just an extra hour, is helpful.”
Tune in, tune out
Franklin said all feedback from the team’s dealings with HBO last week were positive, and the network will air its College Football 24/7 special on the Nittany Lions’ preparations to play Purdue last week on Wednesday night at 10.
He and the coaching staff did meet with players with a simple message about the program on Sunday: Deal with the airing properly.
“They get an hour away from their studying and academics and preparation for the next game. Get some popcorn. Watch it and then move on,” he said. “That’s easier said than done, but we talked about it Sunday to make sure that we do that to keep our focus on the task at hand.”