Pennsylvania State University, a Big Ten college and home of the vaunted Nittany Lions, rushed to defend one of its football players this week after he reportedly received a letter from an alumnus complaining about the athlete’s dreadlocks.
“We couldn’t help but notice your — well — awful hair,” said the letter to the player, Jonathan Sutherland. “Surely there must be mirrors in the locker room! Don’t you have parents or girlfriend who’ve told you those shoulder length dreadlocks look disgusting and are certainly not attractive.”
The letter was shared on Twitter on Monday by Mr. Sutherland’s teammate Antonio Shelton. “Explain to me how this isn’t racist,” Mr. Shelton wrote.
One of my teammates got this. Explain to me how this isn’t racist. pic.twitter.com/Qms1F6DEEP
Penn State condemned the content of the letter in a tweet on Monday, and its football coach, James Franklin, praised Mr. Sutherland at a news conference the next day.
“Jonathan Sutherland is one of the most respected players in our program,” Mr. Franklin said. “He’s the ultimate example of what our program is all about. He’s a captain. He’s a dean’s list honors student. He’s confident, he’s articulate, he’s intelligent, he’s thoughtful, he’s caring and he’s committed.”
Mr. Sutherland, who is a junior safety on the team and a labor and employment relations major at Penn State, according to its roster, also responded to the letter on Tuesday.
“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,” he wrote on Twitter. “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 also said he had forgiven the letter writer, citing Colossians 3:13.
The writer of the letter, which was signed with the name “Dave Petersen,” could not be reached on Wednesday.
The Tribune-Democrat, a local newspaper, identified the writer as David Petersen, a Johnstown, Pa., resident who graduated from Penn State in 1966. Mr. Petersen told the newspaper that he had not been making a statement about race or culture.
“It wasn’t threatening or anything,” he said. “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 N.F.L. and N.B.A., too.”
Mr. Sutherland and Mr. Shelton did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment on Wednesday.
Black people have long been discriminated against, ostracized or punished for hairstyles consistent with their natural hair textures, such as Afros or dreadlocks. The letter seemed to perpetuate that stigma.
“My wife and I are proud ‘older’ graduates of Penn state,” it said, adding that the writer had played sports but “never had the size or the talent to reach your level.”
“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 continued.
It went on to criticize professional football players as well.
“We have stopped watching the N.F.L.,” it said, citing “disgusting” tattoos, “awful hair and immature antics in the end zone,” and adding, “Players should act as though they’ve ‘been there before.’”
Penn State could not verify the authenticity of the letter, it said in its statement on Monday. “Obviously its content does not align with our values,” it added. “We strongly condemn this message or any message of intolerance.”
At a news conference last month, a reporter asked Mr. Sutherland if his hairstyle was important to him.
“I’ve had my hair for like 10 years now, going on 10 years,” he said. “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.”
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