“Although the message was indeed rude, ignorant, and judging, I’ve taken no personal offense to it because … I must respect you as a person before I respect your opinion,” the player later said in response

By Rachel DeSantis
October 08, 2019 07:23 PM
Pennsylvania State University football player Jonathan Sutherland
Scott Taetsch/Getty

A Pennsylvania State University football player is sharing a critical letter his teammate received from an alumnus who criticized the teammate’s dreadlocks as “awful” and “disgusting.”

Defensive tackle Antonio Shelton, 22, posted a photo of the letter to Twitter on Monday, writing, “Explain to me how this isn’t racist.”

Shelton did not name the recipient, but the letter was addressed to Jonathan — and the only player on the team with that name is junior safety Jonathan Sutherland, who wears his hair in long dreadlocks. (Sutherland later confirmed he was the recipient.)

The letter was signed by Dave Petersen, who identified himself and his wife as “older” graduates of the school who were upset by Sutherland’s hair.

“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,” Petersen wrote. “Watching the Idaho game on TV we couldn’t help but notice your – well – awful hair. Surely there must be mirrors in the locker room!”

He continued, “Don’t you have parents or girlfriend who’ve told you those shoulder length dreadlocks look disgusting and are certainly not attractive.”

The letter went on to congratulate Sutherland on Penn State’s victory against the University of Pittsburgh on Sept. 14 but urged him to “remember [he] represents all Penn Staters both current and those alumni from years past,” and suggested that Penn State should bring back a dress code.

“You will certainly be playing ‘on Sunday’ in the future but we have stopped watching the NFL due to the disgusting, tattoos, awful hair and immature antics in the end zone,” Petersen’s letter stated. “Players should act as though they’ve ‘been there before.’ ”

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PEOPLE’s attempts to reach Petersen were unsuccessful, but he told The Tribune-Democrat that he did not intend to make a racial statement with his letter.

“I would just like to see the coaches get the guys cleaned up and not looking like Florida State and Miami guys,” he said.

Peterson told the paper he is a 1966 graduate of the university and a former season ticket holder. PEOPLE was not immediately able to verify his graduation year with school.

“[The letter] wasn’t threatening or anything,” he told the Tribune-Democrat. “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.”

Wyatt DuBois, a spokesman for Penn State, pointed PEOPLE to a statement issued earlier by Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics Sandy Barbour.

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

DuBois added that Petersen’s letter “does not align with our values and we strongly condemn this message or any message of intolerance.”

“At Penn State we strive to create an atmosphere that promotes inclusivity and respect. The well-being of students, faculty and staff members is the University’s priority. As part of this, Penn State provides a range of assistance and resources for students and employees, and we encourage any community member who needs support to reach out,” an additional statement read.

School spokeswoman Lisa M. Powers told PEOPLE that Penn State only became aware of the letter on Monday night because of the Twitter reaction.

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Meanwhile, Shelton received a flood of supportive messages after sharing the letter, including one from Florida mayor and former Florida State wide receiver Wayne Messam.

“As a former @FSUFootball player, I’m proud of your courage to expose this ignorant letter. After a long day of practice and classes, I can imagine the pain & anger to read this hateful letter after practice Keep grinding & leading @PennStateFball should be proud of you as men!” Messam wrote.

Added another user, “Dear Jonathan, keep rocking the dreadlocks and keep being you! Being a Penn Stater has nothing to do with appearance. Sincerely Nittany Nation!”

In his own statement, Sutherland wrote that he received the “degrading” letter on Monday. “Although the message was indeed rude, ignorant, and judging, I’ve taken no personal offense to it because … I must respect you as a person before I respect your opinion,” he wrote. He added that he appreciated the support of others and that he was forgiving Petersen.

“Don’t be scared to be different!!” he wrote.