Penn State coach James Franklin defended safety Jonathan Sutherland on Tuesday during his weekly press conference after his star defensive back received a largely racist letter from an alumnus. Franklin called his junior captain "one of the most respected players in our program," and gave an impassioned statement about football as a unifier, rather than a divider.

Sutherland was the recipient of a letter signed by 1966 alum Dave Petersen, which criticized his appearance – specifically what Petersen described as his "awful hair" in reference to Sutherland's dreadlocks and he also made a comment about "disgusting tattoos."

"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," Franklin said. "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."

Franklin went on to specifically defend Sutherland, calling attention to the respect his program has for him and highlighting the reasons.

"He's the ultimate example of what our program is all about," Franklin explained. "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." 

Sutherland, who has 15 tackles this season (including seven solo), released his own response to the statement on Twitter on Tuesday. 

"Although the message was indeed rude, ignorant, and judging, I've taken no personal offense to it because personally, I must respect (him) as a person before I respect your opinion," he wrote. "At the end of the day, without an apology needed, I forgive this individual because I'm nowhere close to being perfect and I expect God to forgive me for all the wrong I've done in my life."

In an interview with the Tribune-Democrat posted Tuesday, Petersen, a former Penn State season ticket holder, said making a racial or cultural statement "was not the intent at all. I would just like to see the coaches get the guys cleaned up and not looking like Florida State and Miami guys."

Penn State defensive tackle Antonio Shelton first posted the letter, asking his followers on social media to "explain to me how this isn't racist." Safety LaMont Wade later joined the conversation, asking if "these were the kind of traditions we want to keep around" in a tweet. Former Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley also called out the letter, tweeting "SMH."

The letter comes ahead of No. 10 Penn State's Big Ten road game against No. 17 Iowa in Week 7. The Nittany Lions are 5-0 after defeating Purdue in Week 6.