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John Oliver Discusses Racist Letter To Jonathan Sutherland, Black Hair On ‘Last Week Tonight’

Comedian and late-night host John Oliver’s latest episode of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” featured Penn State football safety Jonathan Sutherland and the racist letter he received in 2019 as part of a sprawling discussion of Black hair and discrimination against it.

Sutherland’s clip, featured below beginning at about the 7:48 mark, was used to highlight how, according to Oliver, some individuals’ biases and ignorances toward Black hair can surface in an ugly way. Sutherland infamously received a letter from an apparent Penn State alum in October 2019 that suggested his dreadlocks were “disgusting” and “certainly not attractive.”

“Everything about that is upsetting, from the racist attitude to the hurtful language to the fact that [the writer] chose to express moral outrage over something in college football,” Oliver said. “But it’s not that the NCAA makes millions off student-athletes. Instead, it’s, ‘I can see your hair outside your helmet.”

Dave Petersen, the letter-writer in question, later told Johnstown, Pa.’s Tribune-Democrat that he was “disgruntled” by Sutherland’s dreadlocks because he typically imagines Penn Staters as “a bunch of clean-cut guys.” Oliver used that as a launching point for a rather ham-fisted Sandusky Scandal joke, noting the convicted former Penn State defensive coordinator wound up behind bars despite his short haircut.

“I know it sounds ridiculous, but it’s almost as if the haircut doesn’t fucking matter,” Oliver joked.

The rest of Oliver’s 24-minute segment tackled other issues facing Black hair, including unfair regulations against it, social practices, and even biased perceptions in media. You can check out the full segment on YouTube.

Back in 2019, Sutherland’s teammates quickly rallied around him and spoke out against the racist letter. Head coach James Franklin also made a rather profound statement, noting that Sutherland, a team captain and honors student, represents some of the best parts of his program.

“We live, we learn, we grow, we support, and we defend each other,” he said. “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 the state are hugging, high-fiving, and singing ‘Sweet Caroline’ together. This is my football.”

Sutherland himself released a statement and said he forgave Petersen for the hurtful words, noting he took no “personal offense to it.” Weeks later, College GameDay host Kirk Herbstreit said the entire ordeal would bring the team together.

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About the Author

Matt DiSanto

Matt is a senior majoring in journalism and Onward State's managing editor. He's a huge Philadelphia sports fan, fantasy football aficionado, and washed-up drummer hailing from Collegeville, Pa. The quickest way to his heart is Margherita pizza and "Arrested Development" quotes. Follow him on Twitter @mattdisanto_ if you hate yourself or email Matt at [email protected] if you hate him.

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