The day before his Nittany Lions won the Orange Bowl, Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno was asked about accusations that Florida State middle linebacker A.J. Nicholson had sexually assaulted a woman. In answering, Joe said this:
"There's some tough—there's so many people gravitating to these kids. He may not have even known what he was getting into, Nicholson. They knock on the door; somebody may knock on the door; a cute girl knocks on the door. What do you do?
"Geez. I hope—thank God they don't knock on my door because I'd refer them to a couple of other rooms. But that's too bad. You hate to see that. I really do. You like to see a kid end up his football career. He's a heck of a football player, by the way; he's a really good football player. And it's just too bad."
In reaction, Joanne Tosti-Vasey, president of the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Organization of Women, said she was “appalled” and demanded that Penn State can Paterno.
Not a JoePa fan.
At first I figured the story would disappear. Then I saw it on SportsCenter and reminded myself that the folks at ESPN can take a two-second clip of a high school soccer player picking his nose and turn it into a mini-series. So we might as well talk about it.
There is nothing funny about sexual abuse. It’s even less funny when it involves a seriously huge dude imposing himself on a woman. So I don’t know why JoePa felt the need to make a ha-ha. In fact, why does it happen so often that people speaking in public get themselves in trouble by flexing their funny muscles at the exact wrong moment? Remember that time President Bush showed reporters a picture of himself looking under furniture in the Oval Office and said, “Nope, no weapons over there.” See? Not funny. Of course, unlike the President, JoePa often is very funny. But not this time.
"Hey, this guy's even less funny than me!"
Lesson #1: When you speak publicly on tough issues, just say the right thing and shut up.
So I sympathize with Ms. Tosti-Vasey’s frustration at JoePa’s facetious remarks, but I also think it’s clear that she's off-base. It’s clear that the situation upsets Paterno. He’s devoted his life to working with young men—serving not only as a coach, but also as a father figure. Making a bad joke doesn’t make him a bad man.
Also, Ms. Tosti-Vasey is being ridiculous in calling for his dismissal. Does she honestly believe Penn State will fire the 79-year-old legend? Probably not. She probably figures, “To make as much noise as possible, you have to make as much trouble as you can.” The problem is that she’s undermining her understandable anger by making ludicrous demands.
Lesson #2: Don’t hurt your chances of achieving the things that matter by asking for things that don’t.
I think we all know that Joe’s not losing his job over this, but it’s one of those ugly incidences that easily could have been avoided—and should have been.