Sometimes the best thing to say in a situation that doesn’t directly affect oneself is “no comment.”
John Thompson, the legendary former coach of the Georgetown Hoyas, was the latest to weigh in on the Joe Paterno/Jerry Sandusky situation at Penn State, and he might have done himself more harm than good.
It’s a customary exercise for radio shows to feature prominent sports figures to talk about stories that they could somehow, analogously, give a perspective on. In this case, it was ESPN 980 in Washington D.C. and Thompson on Wednesday.
Taken out of context, Thompson calling Paterno a “damn good man,” and saying that Paterno “made a mistake” and Thompson “feels bad” for him makes Thompson seem like a Paterno defender, something few want to be in the face of all the evidence of Paterno’s role in the events that took place at Penn State.
Taken with some context, the situation isn’t made a whole lot better, but it now becomes clearer that, through the radio medium, as Matt Norlander of CBSSports.com points out, the point Thompson was trying to make was lost.
Here is the bulk of the text:
“So when you’ve got a good man who’s done a hell of a lot of good, and he does something that he maybe would be sorry about, I can’t begin to define him as being a bad person, because he made a mistake or he misjudged what he should have done. Just as I won’t say that the bad person is good because he does a good thing.
“We create false gods in our lives. Joe is not a god. John [Wooden] is not a god, [Coach] K is not a god, [Vince] Lombardi is not a god. He’s a human being that has human frailties, and they make mistakes, OK? But we need gods in our lives, and we tend to attribute that only — only — to sport …
“I feel bad for Joe, because I think he was a damn good man. I think he made a mistake. Probably he would say a terrible mistake. But if Jesse James robbed a hundred thousand banks and gave a little bit of money to the poor, I’m not gonna say he’s a good man. Nor in hell am I gonna say that Joe is the worst person that ever lived because he made a mistake.
“He’s not a god. We put people in god-like positions, and then they become incarcerated by their reputations. And then when they become incarcerated by their reputations, we exploit that. We exploit that. Because we need to say that if you win so many games, if you won so many championships, you’re better than everybody else.
When talking about such an important subject with these types of wide-ranging implications that go beyond sports to teach us about public image, chains of command, and the core of human ethical behavior, if a commentary is to be made, it needs to be made precisely and in a way that does not allow for other interpretations.
That means radio may not have been the place to do it and, if the situation called for it, to use that “no comment” card if necessary.
The tide of public opinion has turned and the case for defending the actions of the administration at Penn State not to protect children affected by Jerry Sandusky is nearly impossible to make. To say you “feel bad” for a man who played a role in not stopping the events that took place at Penn State disregards the emotions of those truly hurt and deserving of comfort in this: Sandusky’s victims.
At its very root, it feels like Thompson is trying to make a point about the ills of such worship of idols as we saw at Penn State, but small clips that hint at an attempt to defend him will ultimately be what is remembered from his interview.