A time will come in politically correct America when "off the cuff remarks" will no longer exist. Brain freeze or a slip of the tongue in public will not be tolerated. Anything said before a handful or more of people will be carefully rehearsed or it won't be said at all.
More and more, it's clear the risk simply isn't worth it.
Joe Paterno's press conference just before Penn State's Orange Bowl win last week. The legendary coach was in front of reporters just as he has been a million times before, trying to answer questions and, essentially, get the thing over with as painlessly as possible so he could get on with the business of winning the football game.
Then came a loaded question.
Someone asked for Paterno's thoughts about A.J. Nicholson, the Florida State linebacker who had been accused of sexual assault and not permitted to play in the bowl game. And Paterno got dangerous. He answered in a stream-of-consciousness fashion.
Paterno talked about his experience with similar suspensions of his own past players, then said, according to the Associated Press: "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."
Since that press conference, some women's rights activists have asked that Paterno resign, saying his comments "represent an institutional insensitivity that endangers women."
Now, knowing Paterno as a lot of America does, knowing this press conference was about a football game, knowing he was talking about the football world from his side of the fence, the charge can certainly seem unfair. Then again, knowing how serious sexual assault is and how many college athletes have been accused of it, taking anyone to task for a questionable answer on the topic can seem appropriate on any occasion. This issue requires awareness. Any opportunity to make people more aware of it is one to take.
Such is political correctness.
Paterno obviously fumbled over some attempt at being funny with his references to someone knocking at his door, and it's not as if he condoned the alleged actions of the Seminole player. The reality is, these players do have people throwing themselves at them for a variety of reasons, and they are very often put in awkward positions. But since high-profile athletes are often coddled from youth and often act like they're celebrities entitled to do just about anything they want, it's kind of hard for the public to ever see them as victims.
Whether Nicholson is guilty remains to be decided. He was punished as a player for the allegation alone. He may face a lot worse. But when you throw up a question like this at a setting like this to a venerable coach, expecting some pearl of wisdom, there are bound to be times you won't get the perfect answer. There are times you won't even get something close.
Does that excuse Paterno?
On one hand, if the subject is a cause dear to your heart, it is human nature to be sensitive to statements related to that cause. On the other, when we're talking about people getting hurt, being assault victims, you may not be inclined to give the benefit of the doubt.
So, is the reaction to Paterno's comments overblown? It's a double-edged sword, isn't it?
With a few poorly chosen words, a public figure can quickly become an insensitive person unworthy of his or her standing in the community. If it's a flagrant remark, it haunts them. When it's more of a vague reference, as was Paterno's, what's right and wrong is left to the judgment of the beholder.
The advocates' point has been made. From here, it's up to the public to decide its staying power. All in all, there's only one way to avoid such issues in politically correct America --- shut up.
Ted Williams is a senior Web producer at mcall.com, where you can view his Blog, "A Moment with Ted Williams." He lives in Emmaus.