Diverse Athletic-Scholars and Coaches – Part I of II

Uniting America

By Jorge D. H. Prosperi 2019

Ah those yesteryears . . . remember Dinah Shore in 1953 singing with patriotic gusto,

“See the USA in your Chevrolet!
America is asking you to call!
Drive your Chevrolet through the USA
America’s the greatest land of all!
Travelin’ east, Travelin’ west
So make a date today to see the USA!”

Most don’t remember Dinah as 1953 was a long, long time ago. But, there are members of that generation that not only remember 1953, but want it back with a vengeance. Ah the sweet yearnings for yesteryears – good old days . . . how they haunt us . . . wanting “yesteryears” to become “todayears” and “futureyears.”

Sorry to inform that time is a trickster moving relentlessly forward – ticking and tocking away – with or without our awareness, consent and/or advocacy.

Time also has a powerful sidekick – Change. Dinah would be shocked traveling east, west, north and south “seeing the USA in her Chevrolet” in the 21st Century – not only its landscapes but its current regional-socio-political-cultural changes, differences and divisions. Words like “nativism” and  “tribalism” were not around then. But Racism, Sexism, Xenophobia, White Nationalism, KKK, White Supremacy, Eugenics – even Domestic Terrorism were well established and grounded – even though kept below the shiny veneer of our founding documents.

The historian scholar Jon Meachum reminds that, “The past always seems somehow more golden, more serious, than the present. We tend to forget the partisanship of yesteryear, preferring to re-image our history as a sure and steady march toward greatness.”

One of the socio-cultural influences that has flourished, since 1953, is our obsession with Athletics. Call it Sports or Athletics, we are passionately infatuated – obsessed by its mania and impact on our soci-cultural curriculum. Therefore, we should not be surprised when we hear daily stories about athletes and/or athletic institutions dealing with social -isms and phobias.

We tend to compartmentalize our social constructs trying to keep them separate from each other ignoring their connections and influences on each other. Most readers of this website were born long after 1953 – long, long after slavery, civil war, domestic terrorism (at the time called hangings and church bombings), Jim Crow laws and the Civil Rights movement.

Nevertheless, every thread of our American history remains part and parcel of America’s legacy. No individual, constituency and/or institution is spared or absolved from its insidious tentacles. It is a legacy that should be address as an ongoing “national emergency” continually reminding us of its “Breaking News.” Therefore, we should not be surprised when ATHLETICS is part of the national conversation on Diversity and its Threads.

One breaking firestorm news was a letter written by a Pennsylvania University Alumnus (1966) mailed to Jonathon Sutherland who is a Penn State Student, born in Ottawa – Ontario Canada, majoring in Labor and Employment Relations, Dean’s  List Honor Student  with aspirations of being a CEO of a company. Oh yes, Jonathon is also a Penn State Football Player, safety position and quite talented in Athletics.

The letter seemed at first just a personal critique. Antonio Shelton, 22, a fellow Penn State student, friend and teammate of Jonathon Sutherland posted a photo of a letter on Twitter that was mailed to Jonathon. Shelton did not name the recipient addressed to Jonathan – 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 a Penn State Alum, who identified himself and his wife as “older” graduates of the school who were upset by Sutherland’s hair. The letter criticized the defensive back’s hairstyle asking Sutherland to cut his long dreadlocks to look more “clean- cut” like men from yesteryear. It seems that the dreadlocks profile Jonathon’s identity as not being “Pen-like” good enough – “not clean-cut guys.” Just like those NFL and NBA guys.

Upon The Tribune-Democrat contacting the alum, he stated, “I would just like to see the coaches get the guys cleaned up and not looking like Florida State and Miami guys,” he said.  “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.”

To  his credit, Penn State Football coach James Franklin opened his news press conference with an emotional response to the letter disparaging one of his players — a letter viewed as racist by team members and social media followers. What is admirable is that Franklin resisted as a leader the option to remain silent addressing head on what I posit is a form of what is known as “aversive Racism by the well-intended” a more subtle nuanced form of Racism in 2019. The Head Coach of the Penn State Football Team, James Franklin, spoke of such manifestations and inclinations,

“The football that I know and love brings people together and embraces differences. Black, white, brown, Catholic, Jewish or Muslim. Rich or poor. Rural or urban. Republican or Democrat. Long hair, short hair … no hair. They’re all in that locker room together. Teams all over this country are the purest form of humanity that we have. We don’t judge. We embrace differences. We live, we learn, we grow, we support and we defend each other. We’re a family.

Penn State football, Penn State University and Happy Valley provide the same opportunities to embrace one another 12 Saturdays each fall. PSU football brings people together like very few things on this planet. 110,000 fans from all different backgrounds throughout our region from all different parts of this state, and they’re hugging, high- fiving and singing ‘Sweet Caroline’ together. This is my football. This is the game that I love, and mostly importantly, my players that I love. And will defend like sons.

Ultimately, this is the definition and embodiment of what ‘We Are’ is all about.

Lastly, 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’s List honor student. He’s confident. He’s articulate. 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 that my daughters would marry someone with his character and integrity.

Franklin’s words should be echoed by every local, state and national politician who often remain comfortably silent and become accessories and complicit to fear mongering and ignorance by their deafening silence. Superintendents, Headmasters, School Board members, Principals and coaches hopefully were listening as well.

Upon hearing the coach’s words, “He’s articulate. He’s intelligent. He’s thoughtful. He’s caring, and he’s committed” I felt that Jonathan has all of the attributes most of us want and hope for in our sons, grandsons, son-in-laws – a CEO – even a President.

For a segment of our citizenry and number of Penn State Alums the letter was “much to do about nothing – a nothing burger – more fake news – another example of PC gone haywire – another attempt against the first amendment – a liberal deep state conspiracy.”

Some would even posit that the letter was “well-intended” simply criticizing the defensive back’s hairstyle asking Sutherland to cut his long dreadlocks to look more “clean-cut” like men from yesteryears. Ah the longing for those yesteryears.

What a tangled web we weave when we practice aversive racism by the well- intended to deceive.”

Aversive racism – it happens in plain sight and in plain language via ignorance, lack of awareness, lack of historical context, and lacking knowledge regarding the complexity of the layers and nuances of racism.

Penn State, as with most colleges, seems to have failed to provide its alums, regardless of their degrees, with academic awareness on Diversity Literacy. But it’s never too late to identify, call out and confront social constructs. Many alums across America never learned about social construct, socializing agencies and its racist curriculum. They graduated without knowing and are learning on the job of citizenship.

Athletics have always provided athletes and coaches a megaphone to voice injustices, prejudices, and racism. Few have chosen to pick it up. Like other forms of entertainment, the systemic and institutional racism remains. The use and abuse of athletes of color by “plantation schools and leagues” still remains within and outside the lines of competitions.

Lets we forget that popular, well-paid, heralded athletic icons, with tons of endorsements, outside the playing fields, are still considered slaves to a segment of white America that fill the seats to watch athleticism, the game, the results, the over and under bet, alums living vicariously wearing their green and white, maze and blue remaining at best neutral to the socio-cultural context of America and athletics.

But watching athletics in 2020 – even paying to attend a competition no longer allows America to remain ignorant or disconnected to those who make it all possible – the athletes. They are now constant reminders of their roles in America’s journey.

As Jon Meacham reminds in his book The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, “The story of America is… one of slow, often unsteady steps forward. If we expect the trumpets of a given era to sound unwavering notes, we will be disappointed, for the past tells us that politics is an uneven symphony.” So is life for that matter.

I posit that Meacham would also remind that each of us as citizens are members of the national symphonic orchestra trying to achieve the harmony of citizenship working through the unevenness. Every aspect of our socio-cultural curriculum is ever present and matters – not withstanding our prized athletics.

So let’s review the history regarding the unevenness of the “Black – White – Equal but Separate Paradigm”, its legacy and connections to Athletics.

Part I of II – Go to Part II