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Penn State head coach James Franklin backed his players and their diversity following a letter from alumnus David Peterson.

Noted fashion critic David Petersen of Johnstown called Nittany Lions sophomore safety Jonathan Sutherland’s dreadlocks “disgusting.”

Said he wished Penn State’s football program didn’t allow such things, like in the good old days. Pined for a simpler time when things he didn’t understand and didn’t particularly want to learn about were simply hidden from his view.

Two of Sutherland’s teammates tweeted a copy of the letter Petersen sent him expressing these opinions. One, defensive tackle Antonio Shelton, made a direct challenge in response: “Explain to me how this isn’t racist.”

Sutherland has worn dreadlocks for more than half his life, and needless to say, dreads are as much heritage as hair to so many like him.

The story went viral and here we are. Teammates rallying around him. National media wondering what is happening in Happy Valley with a big game against Iowa on tap. Head coach James Franklin making an impassioned statement Tuesday, backing Sutherland and unity and what should matter most to college football fans, but somehow doesn’t to some in a fanbase where “But...that’s not how we used to do it” still holds a disproportionate amount of weight.

“I would hope now, after six years, that we have built up some credit with our fans that they know that we’re putting a priority on academics and we’re putting a priority on community service and developing these young people to be leaders and tremendous husbands and fathers one day,” Franklin said. “I think for the most part, we’ve done a pretty good job of that.”

It’s a fair request made from a coach who has gotten things done at Penn State in the last 5½ years, even if that doesn’t include Petersen’s request to eliminate those “unattractive” dreads.

It should be noted, however, that Franklin made that particular statement a week before any of us have ever heard of Johnstown’s answer to Richard Blackwell, standing as just another example of old traditions getting in the way.

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Longing for Paterno

Franklin made the “I would hope ... we have built up some credit with our fans” comment in response to a question about the “Lawnboyz” chain, which a Penn State running back who scores a touchdown dons as a fun sideline ritual that you see at a lot of college programs these days. What harm comes from it is difficult to discern.

Yet, it’s not difficult to find social media posts from fans bashing the chain, saying they don’t want the program to be “like Miami,” which drew national attention four decades ago for its sideline style and antics.

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Well, Penn State is hardly Miami.

Since Franklin took over the program, it has graduated 82 percent of its players. That’s nearly 10 points above the NCAA average at the FBS level. Plus, it’s difficult to think of the last football player at Penn State who has gotten into a minor scrape away from the field, never mind a major one. And, hey, they’ve won games on the field. A lot of games during Franklin’s tenure. They’ve had 5-0 starts in two of the last three seasons, something they haven’t done since 1997-99. In his first 71 games, Franklin’s teams have won 50. That’s not shabby.

Quality academics. Quality athletics. Quality people being molded through both. Isn’t that the heartbeat of Joe Paterno’s Grand Experiment?

Wouldn’t Paterno — whose longheld standards are, let’s face it, what guys like Petersen want to uphold here — be proud that the best parts of his legacy have not been compromised in the ever-changing NCAA more than seven years after his death? After all, he championed guys like Sutherland, a Dean’s list student so respected by his teammates they voted him a captain, which is no small feat for a sophomore, second-team safety.

Let’s also face this reality: Paterno adjusted plenty of his policies when the world changed around him. This is a guy who hardly ever admitted freshmen existed. Then, he started playing more and more redshirt freshmen. Then, in 2005 and after the two worst seasons of his Penn State career, he recruited Derrick Williams and Justin King, played them as true freshmen from the start, and won the Big Ten. No matter what you think of him, Paterno didn’t fight change. He changed. Why can’t some of the fans who grew up watching him do that, too?

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Ignoring what matters

To be completely fair, we’re talking about a handful of those fans, at most, who have spoken out publicly. The overwhelming majority of Penn State fans who responded to the players’ posting of the letter found it to be over the line, ridiculous, backward, asinine. Sutherland tweeted that he forgave Petersen, even without an apology.

Petersen insisted he had no intention of igniting a discussion about race.

“I was just disgruntled about some of the hairdos that we’re seeing,” he explained in a story published Tuesday by the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat. “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.”

Difficult as it is to take Petersen at his word here — he sent the letter to Sutherland, but not long-haired white teammates like Jordan Stout or Blake Gillikin — we should all take this as a learning experience and move on, hoping we can all be better to each other than we have been recently. But memo to the Penn State alumni longing for the days of yore: You’re not honoring Joe Paterno’s legacy and traditions with constant reminders of how things used to be around Happy Valley. In a way, you’re outright ignoring them.

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Donnie Collins is a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at dcollins@timesshamrock.com and follow him on Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT.

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