The Pennsylvania State University community rallied around a football player after he received a fan letter that called his dreadlocks "disgusting."
Safety Jonathan Sutherland, 21, had received a letter from a Penn State alumnus, who was critical of his appearance, asked him to adapt to a "clean cut," and said his "shoulder length dreadlocks look disgusting and are certainly not attractive." The letter also called for a dress code for athletes.
Sutherland published the letter on his Twitter, calling the message "rude, ignorant, and judging," but saying he already forgave the writer.
"I've taken no personal offense to it because personally, I must respect you as a person before I respect your opinion," Sutherland said. "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."
—Jonathan Sutherland (@jay_suth) October 8, 2019
Sutherland's teammates, including Antonio Shelton, also posted the letter on social media.
—Antonio Shelton (@_groovy55) October 7, 2019
Hair-based discrimination can target African American communities
The Tribune-Democrat, a newspaper in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, spoke to the author of the letter, Dave Peterson, about what he wrote. Peterson said he did not intend for his message to be racist, but wanted the "guys cleaned up."
"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 NFL and NBA, too," he told the paper.
Hair-based discrimination against styles like dreadlocks and braids can target African Americans communities, where such hairstyles have cultural importance and historical significance. Because of this, cutting someone's dreadlocks can perpetuate harmful and racist stereotypes about hair while also determining what some see as a "professional" haircut.
Penn State rallied around Sutherland in support
Regardless of Peterson's message, the Penn State community was quick to rally around Sutherland.
"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 said in a Tweet about the letter.
Football head coach James Franklin also offered a defense of Sutherland.
—Audrey Snyder (@audsnyder4) October 8, 2019
"Jonathan Sutherland is one of the most respected players in our program," Franklin said at a news conference. "He's the ultimate example of what our program is all about. 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.
"He's got two of the most supportive parents, and I would be so blessed if my daughters would marry someone with his character and integrity one day."
Franklin said at the press conference that football "brings people together."
"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, they're all in that locker room together," the head coach said. "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."