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Former Georgetown coach John Thompson ‘feel[s] bad’ for Joe Paterno, calls him a ‘damn good man’

Jul 19, 2012, 12:02 PM EDT

John Thompson

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 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.

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_

  1. drewsylvania - Jul 19, 2012 at 2:14 PM

    Thompson makes a very good point–but “damn good men” don’t hide repeated child rape.

    • drewsylvania - Jul 19, 2012 at 2:16 PM

      He’s acting the apologist a bit, which is bad, but not anywhere near as bad as what the family, Bill James, and Posnanski have been doing.

      • drewsylvania - Jul 19, 2012 at 2:18 PM

        Oh, and if you don’t want Thompson’s comments taken out of context, you might choose a better tagline than “Thompson calls Paterno ‘damn good man'”.

  2. dannythebisforbeast - Jul 19, 2012 at 3:21 PM

    Don’t have a different opinion or you will be vilified for it too. I happen to agree. Most people get a second chance, a chance at redemption. Whatever you want to call it. paterno obviously never will.
    It’s not much but he is still the only one to admit guilt regret etc. if he was still alive maybe he would come clean, maybe he wouldn’t. No one knows. Thumbs down cuz I feel differently than you

    • drewsylvania - Jul 19, 2012 at 4:27 PM

      Well, he didn’t come clean, and he lied about his contract status because he knew he’d be ousted. He knew what he was doing was wrong. You can say “could have, might have”, but there’s no indication that he would have done either. So, this is just speculation.

  3. dannythebisforbeast - Jul 19, 2012 at 10:37 PM

    Well for here most part people do feel guilty for things they’ve done and try to atone. I know it was wrong but a lot of good people have turned a blind eye to terrible things. What he did may be a crime but the true criminal is Sandusky

    There is a lot of speculation in the freeh report and conclusions based on incomplete info. Like the fact that paterno rejected sanduskys request in his retirement package to bring second mile activities/kids on campus. Spanier went ahead and ok’d it. Handwritten note paterno said no. Until last year noone knew the depth of sanduskys evil.

  4. davidcl77 - Jul 20, 2012 at 7:19 AM

    He’s a damn sorry ass man. Plain and simple. Enabler. Would he have allowed that sick jerk to molest his grandkids? Wonder how the parents of these kids feel? All for football. Football.
    A damn good man? How ridiculous.

  5. omniusprime - Jul 20, 2012 at 9:02 AM

    JohnThompson should have just shut up about Pervert Protector Paterno. Paterno was a damned man and his legacy will be that of a criminal, as it should be for the heinous crime he committed over the space of more than a decade. So what is Thompson hiding? Sorry but Sandusky, Paterno and Pedophile State deserve no sympathy whatsoever. John Thompson should apologize to all the fine young children for trying to make out Pervert Protector Paterno as being a good man.

    Pedophile State Tear Down That Statue!

    NCAA Give Pedophile State the Death Penalty!

  6. LPad - Jul 20, 2012 at 11:36 AM

    I agree that Thompson’s comments are going to be misquoted and taken out of context, but I don’t understand the idea that radio isn’t the right medium for him to give his comments. First, the guy’s medium is radio, he had a radio show for at least ten years and broadcasts games on a regular basis on the radio. Second, people are taken out of context whether they say it on tv, take out an editorial in a newspaper, write an article in a scholorly journal, or if they write a blog.

  7. fnc111 - Jul 20, 2012 at 2:24 PM

    Anybody defending Paterno is a loser in the game of life.

  8. dacuseman - Jul 25, 2012 at 11:02 PM

    There once was a great American military leader. He fought valiantly in many battles over many years guiding elements of a ragtag militia to victories for our fledgling nation and he was widely adored and respected for it. But one day he decided it would be better to be on the other side. Shock, awe, disbelief and anger abound and to this day, his name is synonomous with “traitor”. But our nation was, in spite of this betrayal, grateful for all he had done to help secure it’s freedom. So much so that a statue was erected in his honor at the site of his greatest military triumph. It does not bear his name, face or likeness. Only a boot in acknowledgement to the injury he suffered in the battle. Hundreds of years before Hogwarts, he was America’s Voldamort. He who should not be named.

    The point is, a life’s worth of good deeds can be wiped out in a New York minute. All it takes is one very bad decision. When I say OJ Simpson what do you think of 1st? The HOF RB or the murder trial? What about micheal Vick? Football or dead dogs? Richard Nixon, president or Watergate?

    It may not sound fair, but that’s life. That’s how it is. That’s how it was for the “Hero of Saratoga Springs” and that’s how it will be for the hero of Happy Valley. And it should be.

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