King Kaufman's Sports Daily

NOW leader is right: Paterno's comments on sex assault are "appalling." But resign? Let's get a grip.

Published January 10, 2006 5:00PM (EST)

I've been saying for a few years that Penn State football coach Joe Paterno ought to resign, and now that someone's making headlines saying the same thing, I couldn't disagree more.

The president of the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Organization for Women called last week for Paterno to apologize and resign in the wake of remarks he made about an alleged sexual assault prior to Penn State's Orange Bowl game in Miami against Florida State.

Joanne Tosti-Vasey said she was appalled at Paterno's comments, that they represent an institutional insensitivity that endangers women at Penn State, and that e-mails she'd sent to Paterno and the university's president had gone unanswered.

Paterno, 79, just finished his 40th year as head coach of the Nittany Lions. Before the Orange Bowl, he was asked about Florida State linebacker A.J. Nicholson, who had been sent home after being accused of sexually assaulting a 19-year-old woman at the team's Hollywood, Fla., hotel. Nicholson hasn't been charged, though police say the case is open.

Here's what Paterno said: "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."

Appalling is a pretty good word.

The university's official response was the oft-used dodge that Paterno's comments had been taken out of context. If there's a context in which those two paragraphs aren't appalling, I haven't run into it. But that response is to be expected. Pennsylvania State University is not about to do anything but back its most famous and powerful employee, who also happens to be a huge donor.

Paterno's public image alternates between gruff and impish old man. He was pretty clearly trying to make a self-deprecating joke there about how "cute girls" aren't likely to knock on his door.

But the gist that comes through loud and clear is that if something happened in that hotel room, this poor 230-pound linebacker was the victim, that women are to blame for their own sexual assaults by athletes. Paterno expressed concern for the plight of the linebacker but none for the victim of an alleged sexual assault.

He asked, "What do you do?"

Well, Joe, I'm an avid reader of Miss Manners, so I'll make a list for you. I'll mail you the whole thing later, but it starts, "1. Don't rape her."

But I don't think JoePa should resign.

Paterno should apologize. And I mean genuinely and in the flesh, in front of TV cameras. Not through a statement. He should make it clear in his apology why what he said was so appalling. If he doesn't know, he should find out.

He should make sensitivity to violence against women a priority around his program, require his players to attend a workshop on the subject at the start of camp -- and he should attend it too. Even before Paterno's dumb remarks in Miami, sexual assault was a major issue around big-time college athletics, as Paterno ought to know.

He allowed defensive back Anwar Phillips to play in the Capital One Bowl on Jan. 1, 2003, even though Phillips had already accepted a two-semester expulsion from the university for an alleged sexual assault on a fellow student. Paterno refused to discuss the incident at the time -- something he should have done this time. Phillips was later acquitted, and he closed out his Penn State career in last week's Orange Bowl.

Paterno's official bio brags about his "'total person' approach to football -- which addresses academic and lifestyle matters in addition to athletic prowess."

Former Penn State linebacker LaVar Arrington, now an NFL star with Washington, is quoted saying, "If you're not a man when you get there, you'll be a man before you leave." Part of being a man, I'm sure Paterno would agree, is respecting women. Coach, coach thyself.

But resign? Come on. When I've said he should quit over the last few years, it's been because I'd thought he'd lost it as a coach. I agreed with my former stablemate Allen Barra, who in 2001 wrote, "Is it possible that Joe Paterno simply cannot see the damage he is doing to the Penn State football program, that it has been run into the ground and that he is the man who has run it there?"

That was during a second straight losing season. Penn State rebounded to 9-4 in 2002, including that Capital One Bowl loss, but went 7-16 in 2003 and '04 before this season's 11-1 record and Orange Bowl victory earned Paterno Associated Press Coach of the Year honors.

Maybe this year was another one-year rebound, but it looks to me like Paterno has adapted to the times, changed his approach, particularly on offense, and remade himself as the great coach he was in the 20th century. He needn't resign for football reasons on my account.

And he needn't resign because he made some insensitive remarks.

I understand that jumping on a public figure like that is a good way for an organization like NOW to make headlines. Tosti-Vasey, the Pennsylvania NOW president, wasn't going to get her name in the papers by tsk-tsking over Paterno's comments and asking for an apology.

Tosti-Vasey must have known before issuing her press release that Paterno wasn't going to resign, but that's not really her concern. Her job is to call attention to an important issue, and she did a good job of that.

But there must be a better way. Why is it always necessary for public figures to lose their jobs whenever they say something insensitive or unpleasant? Aren't there other remedies? Isn't anybody but me bothered by the chilling effect on speech that comes from the slightest deviation from bland pleasantries resulting in calls for the speaker's head?

And isn't there a point at which all these calls for all these resignations after all these insensitive remarks begin to take on a quality of crying wolf? I dare say that given the lack of traction Tosti-Vasey's call for Paterno's resignation has achieved, she went beyond that point.

If anybody's going to take a lesson from this incident, it's going to be public figures who'll realize they shouldn't talk about sexual assault at all, joking or not, because it's just not worth the risk. So we can add that to race as a taboo subject, if it hasn't already been added.

I don't understand how this is a good thing. We should be talking more about difficult subjects, not less.

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