Several Penn State football players posted a letter on social media Monday night written by someone who claims to be a university alumnus. Within the letter the author mentions the dislike he and his wife have for safety Jonathan Sutherland’s long dreadlocks, which the letter writer calls "awful," "disgusting and certainly not attractive."
The author — who also wrote that he stopped watching the NFL "due to the disgusting tattoos, awful hair and immature antics in the end zone" — concludes that Sutherland should cut his hair, in turn restoring Penn State football back to the days of stringent dress codes and short hair.
“We congratulate you on your game against Pitt but you need to remember that you represent all Penn Staters both current and those alumni from years past,” the letter states.
Sutherland is black and when asked about his hair, conversationally earlier this season, he said the following:
“I've had my hair for like 10 years now, going on 10 years,” Sutherland 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.”
The letter’s authenticity in terms of the author’s actual relationship with the university is unknown. In this day and age it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility that someone could fabricate it to create an inevitable storm of tweets and news stories for the sake of a laugh at someone else’s expense.
Ultimately, the question of importance is not whether or not the letter was genuine, but rather how to respond to the people who would have written it given the chance.
There has not so quietly been an uncomfortable current flowing along the narrative of Penn State football the past several days. The emergence of a “LawnBoyz” chain, a celebratory piece of jewelry given on the sidelines to the most recent running back to score a touchdown has yielded a varying array of responses, mostly positive, but not without some negative reactions as well.
Of course there are fair and reasonable objections to a chain that singles out an individual in the course of a team game. But the trend of chains and celebratory objects is a national phenomena created and enjoyed by the team’s themselves. The notion of taking away from the ‘team’ for the sake of ‘self’ is an issue projected onto the program, not one grappled with internally. It seems to have done no harm, hurt no feelings and created no issues.
Speaking to James Franklin this summer about race and his career, I was surprised how quickly he responded when asked if he wished he could talk about social issues and politics more.
“Yes,” Franklin said, faster than the question could even be asked.
“I'd love to be one of these guys that says so much that you can pretty much say anything and it doesn't faze anybody,” Franklin said with a laugh. “I would love to have more open discussions about politics. I'd love to have more open discussions about race. I'd love to have more open discussion, and I’ve had them with the team. I have them with my close friends, I have them with the staff, with a small circle, and with my wife, you know things like that.”
There are reasons why he can’t, both in a practical sense, and a personal one.
James Franklin is a head coach in the county in the center of the state to go Democrat, surrounded by counties that voted heavily Republican in 2016. Political conversations, especially in 2019, invite the kind of divide that does little to help fill seats in a massive stadium or bring fans together under a united cause in spite of those differences. Franklin avoiding politics is a practical business decision in an unreasonable world.
James Franklin is also black, coaching in a small town that is surrounded by even smaller towns that are made up of the kind of demographics that can sometimes represent statistical epicenters of racism and bigotry.
Of course where you live or where you were born does not mean you are this way by default. Regardless, it would be naive to think Franklin’s race is something never discussed by some fans or simply citizens within the borders of the state. In turn, that these people aren’t inclined to voice those opinions in public settings both subtly or otherwise.
It is not a secret that American athletics has been more inclined to appreciate the black body more than the black mind. The first African-American GM in the NBA was hired in 1972, over two decades since the first African-American player. The NFL is only now slowly turning the corner in the front office industry, the NHL farther behind but with a different (albeit increasingly diversifying) player and ex-player base.
There is a connection here between Sutherland’s hair, jewelry on the sidelines and the hesitant nature of allowing minority culture to dictate the sport's culture. It's a connection that implies we’re OK with black athletes, but their personality, traditions and ethnicity are unwelcome. The perception that white culture in a predominantly black sport is somehow “correct” is one founded in faulty logic, if not racial underpinnings.
It's why "shut up and play" means so much more than that. It's a reminder that your body is needed, but your worries and lives are not. You are here for us, leave your life at the door, because it isn't mine. It's why players are often not inclined to rise up for causes, to rock the boat when the checks still clear. It's a suppression by design. It's why the likes of LeBron James are so powerful, and why his ability to speak his mind is one of his greatest gifts to sports.
That’s why it doesn’t matter if the letter is real or if a tweet calling a chain “ghetto” is indicative of a larger problem, because the answer is yes, because sports have always been the collision between politics, race and culture. That problem has always been there, ever since Joe Louis fought Max Schmeling in the late 1930s. Louis the symbol of American power even if Louis’ standing as a powerful black man representing all that was good in America was only a facade for a country far from the one it pretended to be.
They also say that you shouldn’t see race, but the argument to the contrary is stronger. Seeing race allows you to recognize that people are different, that our experiences are unique and that the notion that everything is OK is not always right.
Penn State fans are like everyone else. They’re imperfect, there are good ones and bad ones. The lesson isn’t to self-flagellate, and the objective isn’t to prove State College is perfect.
The lesson is what is posted on signs all around Beaver Stadium. If you see something, say something.
Because acceptance isn’t passive.