- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2003

The NFL is supposed to be played by he-men, for he-men (and he-women, too), but one of the greatest he-men ever can’t be happy right now.

Somewhere, John Wayne is parked on a barstool in a dusty saloon, well into a quart of Old Buzzard Breath, spewing invectives against the flurry of public apologies that are filling the air like challenge flags.

The Duke was the embodiment of old school manliness both in real life and on the screen. A former college football player, he oozed real testosterone, not the kind made in some lab in northern California. He rarely needed to explain himself or utter the words, “I’m sorry.” And if he did, you can bet your spurs it was handled in private, maybe by the campfire or on that barstool. One of his famous characters, Ethan Edwards, in the film classic, “The Searchers,” utters the line, “Never apologize for anything.”

Yet everyone, from Matt Millen to Michael Barrow to the Carolina Prowler to retired quarterbacks, seems to be making a public show of coming clean and ‘fessing up.

Of course, some might call that good manners.

“People who do something wrong should apologize,” Nat Segaloff writes in “The Everything Etiquette Book.” “This means that they accept responsibility for their actions and agree to pay the penalty.”

But some are skeptical of how public figures use public apologies. Sometimes the apology is nothing but an empty gesture or a self-serving act, according to Jodi R.R. Smith, owner of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting.

“I think high-profile people will rely on the apology,” she said. “They’ll do something that is not becoming and then use the apology as a way of gaining additional media attention.”

A lot of behavior lately has not been becoming.

Two Sundays ago, Millen, the general manager of the Detroit Lions, called the Kansas City Chiefs’ Johnnie Morton a derogatory term within earshot of several people after Millen first congratulated Morton after a victory. Morton told Millen to go kiss a part of his anatomy. There had been some history between the two — Millen once cut Morton from the Lions (for which Morton should be eternally grateful).

Morton’s response was tacky, but what Millen said offended a lot of people. So he did what most people with access to the media do in a similar circumstance. He issued a statement.

“I apologize if I offended anyone,” Millen said. “It was certainly not meant to do anything other than express my frustration and disappointment.”

The same day, New York Giants linebacker Michael Barrow compared a 45-7 loss to New Orleans with sexual assault. Said Barrow, “I don’t know what it is to be raped. Not to be insensitive to people who have, but to me, this is my experience to feel like they just held us down and did whatever they want to us.”

A statement of apology came two days later.

Asked what she thinks of such apologies, Smith said, “The fact it’s been scripted by public relations people indicates right there it is not sincere. If you apologize on the spot, it’s a little different.”

Joe Namath waited a few days, but at least the former New York Jets quarterback did not issue a press release or hold a news conference. Namath on Tuesday phoned ESPN sideline reporter Suzy Kolber and told her he was sorry for telling her twice on the air during Saturday’s Jets-Patriots game that he wanted to kiss her.

But the trend continues. Namath was just the latest. If it’s not somebody apologizing to the world for saying the wrong thing, it’s the NFL apologizing for doing the wrong thing, like officials costing teams victories because of incompetence. It happened during last year’s playoffs, when a bad call at the end helped the San Francisco 49ers beat the Giants. The NFL apologized as the Giants’ players were cleaning out their lockers.

This season the most notable example was a few weeks ago when the zebras gave the Baltimore Ravens more clock time than they deserved and they went on to beat Seattle. The league acknowledged the mistake and apologized. Meanwhile, with one game remaining, Baltimore has a one-game lead over Cincinnati in the AFC North and Seattle is tied with Green Bay for the final wild card berth in the NFC.

Sometimes if the officials mess up, a coach says something, and then he apologizes. That’s what happened to Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher, who ripped a replay official and ended up apologizing not only to him but his entire family.

Public apologies often ease a sense of guilt or failure. Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank had nothing to do with superstar quarterback Michael Vick breaking his leg in a preseason game, and the team’s resultant swoon. But after an embarrassing performance on “Monday Night Football,” Blank wrote a letter of apology to ABC. If that wasn’t enough, Blank then took out a full-page newspaper ad apologizing to the fans.

However, Blank backed up his words with action. After his apology well ran dry, he fired his coach, Dan Reeves.

Apologies used to be a more private matter. After losing to Miami last month, Redskins coach Steve Spurrier looked into a battery of cameras and told the fans he was sorry for the team’s shoddy play. That’s the new way. The old way was, after the Redskins lost Super Bowl VII to the Dolphins in 1973, then-coach George Allen apologized quietly and discreetly to owner Jack Kent Cooke.

The mea is back in mea culpa. A Carolina Panthers fan dressed as a cat and known as the “Carolina Prowler,” gets on the public address system, mocks the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and then later says, “If I offended anyone — and especially the team or coaching staff — I apologize. I wanted to get our fans fired up. I didn’t even think about getting Tampa Bay fired up.”

The real problem, of course, is the bad behavior, stupidity or incompetence that provokes the apologies. But people have always behaved badly, stupidly and incompetently, and sports is a particularly fertile field. Smith understands. “When you’re in a highly competitive, highly paid, very highly charged scenario, it’s hard to turn that off with all that adrenaline and testosterone running,” she said.

And now, because cameras and microphones are literally everywhere, and anybody apparently can get access to a P.A. system, nothing goes unnoticed. Reaction is swift. Apology to follow.

Because of more publicized situations that require an apology, apologizing itself has become a ritual and public act. Also, it’s a lot tougher to fix the problem than it is to send out a news release. We are wholly wedded to Stewart’s Law of Retroaction, which states, “It is easier to get forgiveness than permission.”

But there once was a time when apologies were not a requirement, or even desired. Benjamin Disraeli, the 19th century prime minister of Great Britain, said, “Apologies only account for that which they do not alter.”

Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “Apology is only egotism, wrong side out.” P.G. Wodehouse wrote, “It is a good rule in life never to apologize. The right sort of people do not want apologies, and the wrong sort take mean advantage of them.”

He might be on to something, because we are a culture that shoots first and apologizes later — and makes sure everyone knows about it. Maybe when the New York Giants’ Jeremy Shockey called Dallas coach Bill Parcells a “homo,” he knew he could wriggle out of it by first denying the quote, which didn’t work, then apologizing, which apparently did.

Maybe when Oakland Raiders linebacker Bill Romanowski attacked teammate Marcus Williams during a preseason practice — leaving Williams severely injured and pretty much ending his NFL career — and then apologized, he figured that would be that. It wasn’t. Williams filed suit.

Most people would agree apologies are necessary and proper. In a civilized society, even this one, an apology sometimes is the only way to go. Presidents and others presumably more important than sports figures have made a big deal of the public apology. Mainly, it is just the right thing to do.

If it’s done right.

“The real test of the apology is not just the immediate sincerity, but whether they repeat [the offense],” said Smith, the author of two forthcoming books on etiquette. “If they haven’t learned from the incident, they figure, ‘I can behave this way because I can apologize later.’”

Romanowski’s apology for what he did to Marcus Williams sounded at least as sincere as when he apologized for spitting in the face of then-49ers receiver J.J. Stokes a few years ago. Bill Cowher’s apology for ripping the replay official was similar to his apology for charging after referee Ron Blum following the Steelers’ playoff loss to Tennessee last year.

Smith also has a problem with what she calls the “boomerang apology.” That’s when the apologizer says something like, “I’m sorry that you feel bad.” You hear that a lot.

“It means that they’re apologizing for someone else’s feelings and not for their own behavior,” said Smith. “The real trick of the true apology is taking responsibility for your own actions.”

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