Shelton: We've plunged into a 'sorry' state in sports

By Gary Shelton, Times Columnist
Published February 24, 2008

Time was, sports were the great educators. Along the way to a final score, they taught us about a great many things.

They taught us about teamwork and resiliency, about dedication and determination. In our moments of great vanity, we came to believe they taught us about teamwork.

These days, they teach us something else.

These days, they teach us how to apologize.

The drill has become tiresome. Day after day, we search through the downcast eyes for a hint of regret. Misdeed after misdeed, we listen to the solemn voices and try to find remorse. Athlete after athlete, we sort through the words and try to find sincerity. After that, like jurors, we decide whether to believe the testimony.

And so it goes, the sorry statement of sports in the 21st century.

By now, the public apology has become a game in itself. You know how it works. The accused of the moment enters the room with the look of a kid going to the principal's office, and he reads from a statement that is usually written by public-relations experts and edited by attorneys. He says very little, and seems to say even less.

And here's the silliest thing of all. No one is fooling anybody, and both sides know it. The athlete is rarely sorry for anything but the part about getting caught, and the public almost never believes a word of the latest apology. We know, and they know, that it is mostly a show.

So why do we insist on the ritual? Why do we line up the rule-benders and the lawbreakers and the drug cheats and parade them in front of the cameras as if it were a confessional?

Because, basically, what else do we have? Because, down deep, we like to think of ourselves as a forgiving lot, and as we tell our children, how can you forgive without an apology? Because, after all, we like to believe in celebrities. Because, for whatever reason, the city fathers took the stockades out of the town square.

If you watched Andy Pettitte go through his apology paces, perhaps this hit you, too.

Give Pettitte credit for this much. He did better at his forgiveness fest than most athletes. His voice was sincere, and his body language was good, and he stuck around for questions. Ah, but Andy still seems to want it both ways. He wants to be friends with Roger Clemens and Brian McNamee. He wants to admit (in stages, it seems) his drug use but not be thought of as a cheat. He wants credit for the truth without telling all of it.

Certainly, Pettitte scored higher than, say, Houston's Miguel Tejada, who said he "couldn't talk" about being named in the Mitchell report. And he scored higher than Milwaukee's Eric Gagne, who blathered something about apologizing to his teammates for "the distractions" he had caused.

Is that what we are down to in sports? To wordplay and role-play? To acts of contrition that are, most of all, acts? To news conferences designed as car-washes for a player's reputation?

What is next? Are teams going to employ apology coordinators? Is the song Who's Sorry Now going to become a team's fight song?

Spare me, please, apologies such as the one by Shaquille O'Neal, who once apologized by saying, "If I offended anyone, I'm sorry." In other words, the offended parties were the ones at fault, not Shaq.

Spare me, too, the scripted apologies such as John Rocker's, which sounded as if he were reading a chapter for a class. Some day, an athlete will pause, turn to the PR director and ask, "What does this word mean?"

Spare me, please, the self-serving apology. Pete Rose once apologized on a baseball for $299. He apologized in a book for $22.95. How sorry is he? Depends on the price.

Spare me, please, the apology that comes after years of lying. Marion Jones once filed a defamation suit because of steroid allegations. Yet, that was Jones, tearfully apologizing in an attempt to stay out of jail.

Spare me, please, the apologies that are, more than anything, deflections of the accusations. In his original response to Spygate, remember, Bill Belichick actually said: "We have never used sideline video to obtain a competitive advantage while the game was in progress." Yeah? How about before a game?

Spare me, most of all, the apologies that are intended to stop the outrage. I am weary of athletes who conclude their apologies with the words "and now I just want to move on." Sorry, but that's not the athletes' call.

Here is what I would like to see. I would like to see two lines: One for athletes who aren't sorry at all and a much shorter one for those who are.

The ones who regret nothing can at least stop wasting our time. As for those who really feel remorse, I want more than words. I want them talking to kids. I want them visiting hospitals. I want them working for charity. I want Pete Rose working for Gamblers Anonymous and Michael Vick working with abused animals and Mike Tyson working at a domestic violence center.

Otherwise, I have no use for an apology.