EDITORIAL: Penn State football program deserves praise, letter writer deserves shame

York Dispatch Editorial Board
  • Penn State safety Jonathan Sutherland was recently criticized for his dreadlocks.
  • A 1966 Penn State grad wrote to Sutherland, calling his dreadlocks "disgusting."
  • The Penn State football program quickly rallied around Sutherland.
Jonathan Sutherland

It’s not 1969, and Joe Paterno is no longer the head coach for the Penn State football team.

Those are facts.

Some Nittany Lions fans, however, apparently don’t realize those twin realities.

Their heads are still buried in 50-year-old sand.

That became all-too apparent last week when a letter written to PSU safety Jonathan Sutherland became public.

In the letter, written by a 1966 PSU graduate from Johnstown, Sutherland was taken to task for wearing long dreadlocks.

The letter writer called Sutherland’s hair “disgusting" and “awful.” He goes on to write that he would like to see a dress code for PSU players and misses “the clean cut young men” of past eras.

There’s only one way to interpret that letter, and one of Sutherland’s teammates nailed it exactly.

“Explain to me how this isn’t racist?” Lions defensive tackle Antonio Shelton asked on his Twitter site.

The answer? That is impossible to explain because the letter clearly is racist.

Penn State rallies around Jonathan Sutherland after letter criticizing his dreadlocks

Jonathan Sutherland

Lions rally around Sutherland: To its credit, however, the PSU football program quickly and forcefully rallied around Sutherland. His teammates, his head coach and the Penn State administration defended Sutherland and his character.

“Long hair, short hair, no hair. They’re all in that locker room together,” PSU head coach James Franklin said. “These are the players I love and will defend like sons.

“I would be so blessed if my daughters would marry someone with (Sutherland’s) character someday.”

PSU athletic director Sandy Barbour also weighed in.

“I stand with our Penn State student-athletes and appreciate how they represent PSU in competition, in the classroom and in the community,” Barbour tweeted. “Their dress, tattoos, or hairstyle has no impact on my support, nor does their gender, skin color, sexuality or religion!”

James Franklin thinks it's fine for Penn State players to have fun with 'Lawnboyz' name

Shirt support: Saturday, before the PSU game at Iowa, Sutherland’s teammates showed their support by wearing shirts with the words: “Chains, Tattoos, Dreads & WE ARE.”

The chains reference was made because of the “LawnBoyz” chain that PSU running backs have sported on the sideline during games. That chain has also come under criticism by some, with one Twitter poster writing: “Joe Paterno would be spinning his grave.”

Franklin later had the players remove the shirts because they had not told him in advance that they would wear them. Franklin and the PSU administration were afraid the shirts could lead to NCAA sanctions for being improper apparel.

WOGENRICH: For Penn State football program, an eventful week ends in triumphant fashion

Still, the shirts showed just how unified the team was in support of Sutherland.

Social media reaction: Most of the reaction on social media appeared to similarly support Sutherland.

Most, but unfortunately, not all.

Some supported the letter writer’s yearning for the “clean cut” young men of the past, while also opining that Paterno would’ve never allowed such things. Those PSU supporters are sometimes referred to as “Joe-bots.”

Well, Paterno was famously known for buttoned-down demeanor, dress codes and demand for discipline. He was also famously known, however, for his strong support of his African-American players.

The "Joe-bots" must realize that this is a very different era in college football and Penn State has a very different head coach.

A person’s hair, tattoos or jewelry do not define a person. They are simply personal statements of individual style. Nothing more and nothing less. Franklin realizes that you must allow today's players to express themselves.

Man whose letter sparked backlash at PSU a world traveler, says African people 'wonderful'

Character counts: The immortal words of Martin Luther King come quickly to mind, when he said people should be judged “by the content of their character.”

Sutherland, by all accounts, is a young man of solid character. He’s also a pretty fair football player and student. The labor and employee relations major has made the dean’s list at PSU and hopes to one day be the chief executive officer for a company.

He sounds like someone that the Penn State football community should be proud of.

No matter his hairstyle.