In 1947, Penn State – in the face of racism and hatred – decided that family and unity were more important than the status quo or what others thought to be “correct.” According to legend, SMU wanted Penn State to leave their two African American players at home before the schools faced off in the Cotton Bowl. When faced with the notion of leaving some behind for the sake of the rest, Steve Suhey, one of Penn State’s captains, answered, “We are Penn State.”
“We are” isn’t a catchy saying; it isn’t a marketing ploy; it isn’t something neat to yell at a football game. No, “We are” goes further than a two-word phrase screamed around the world. “We are” means that despite being individuals, we are part of something greater. Penn State has preached family since the beginning, and it’s that mantra that reigns true to this day. Unfortunately, defending this mentality hasn’t been easy.
Recently, Jonathan Sutherland, an athlete on the Penn State football team, received a letter from an older alumnus. It seemed to echo some of the sentiments that the 1947 football team sought to eliminate. Sutherland’s teammate, Antonio Shelton, posted the letter on his Twitter (shown below):
Regardless of Jonathan Sutherland’s talent, he is not only a human but also an American. As such, he has the right to dress, act, and look the way he so chooses, provided it follows reasonable human law. Sutherland is not only a valued student, but also, he is an integral member of the football team. This letter attacks some of the ideas that the Penn State culture finds vital to its identity: family, individuality, love, and unity.
Tattoos and “awful hair” don’t define a man. Our physical characteristics don’t define us; our values and virtues do. He has a right to look the way he feels best represents himself; thus, he can be the best version of himself, a version that allows him to contribute to the community.
The idea of “immature antics” isn’t something new in sports. Celebrations have drastically evolved. It isn’t a bad thing; rather, it’s just a sign of the changing times. Millions of children strive to play in the NCAA, yet only a handful do. Jonathan, celebrate, every time you take the field if you want because you have earned that honor. How has the Penn State community responded to this egregious document? They have echoed those sacred words from 1947: We are.
The outpouring of emotion from Penn State supporters has been incredible. It isn’t just former or current players offering support for Sutherland either. The love and care from the Penn State family have been incredible to watch. Thousands of people across multiple platforms have offered their kind words and thoughts on the matter. Many have been very vocal about how this letter stands in defiance to the spirit of Penn State.
Head coach James Franklin is an icon in the Penn State community. When asked about his view of the letter, he offered:
Jonathan Sutherland is one of the most respected players in our program. He’s the ultimate example of what our program is all about. He’s a captain, he’s a Dean List honor student. He’s articulate. He’s confident. 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 like him with his character and integrity one day. (USA Today)
Scattered across the globe, the connection of the Penn State family knows no bounds. With millions of dedicated supporters, the Penn State love and unity continues to be a compelling reason for young men and women to attend the university. Penn State may be a brick and mortar campus, but the soul of Penn State extends outside of the classrooms, courts, and dorms.
Although you may feel like a small part of the Penn State community, your impact matters immensely. Penn State refuses to let differences divide itself, and the community continues to foster growth and development for years to come. When attacks hit the Penn State family, it just answers back with the same ideas chanted across generations. We are strong. We are powerful. We are connected. WE ARE… PENN STATE.