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Apology Not Accepted

Let's Stop the Trend of "Non-Apology Apologies"

(This story was published in 2003).

“I apologize if I offended anyone.” – Matt Millen, Detroit Lions president (Dec. 15, 2003).

With these words, Millen tried to extricate himself from a mess he created by calling former Lions receiver Johnnie Morton a “faggot.” Sorry, Matt (a fellow Penn State alum), but apology not accepted.

It’s not that I don’t believe in the power of redemption or of an apology made from the heart. What I object to the are the words Millen used. “I apologize IF I offended anyone.” Not very sincere and uttered more out of obligation that contrition. It’s more like a “non-apology apology.”

This new trend in public apologies—in which the offending party apologizes only if they offended anyone—has become rampant and it’s time for it to stop. New York-based writer Joseph Dobrain summed up perfectly why the “non-apology apology” is wrong. In a 1999 business article, he wrote:

“One thing many people say, which you should NEVER say, is, ‘If I offended you, I apologize.’ That is the worst sort of fake apology: It’s like stealing someone's wallet, and saying, ‘I'm sorry if you felt you were inconvenienced.’ When you say ‘If I offended you, I apologize,’ you’re implying that the other person is to blame-for being so over-sensitive as to be offended, or so selfish a to demand an apology. You’re making it clear that you’re not sorry for anything YOU did; you just resent the other person’s reaction.”

In doing just a little research, I was able to come up with numerous recent examples of the “non-apology apology” in the world of sports and beyond, with some being more creative than others

Jeremy Shockey, New York Giants tight end. Shockey has had to apologize twice in the past year for anti-gay comments and you think he’d get better at it. “Whatever I did to offend people, I apologize,” Shockey said after anti-gay comments on the Howard Stern show in 2002. This past August, Shockey was forced to confront his statements calling Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells a homo. “I apologize for everything I said that offended people," Shockey said.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, California governor. The actor-turned-politician was faced with more than a dozen women who accused him of sexually assaulting them. He denied some allegations, but said others might be true, then tried to end the matter by saying, “If anyone was offended, I apologize, because that was not my intention.” Is this a new legal defense? “I’m sorry, your honor, my intention was to molest her while she was sleeping, but she woke up and I apologize if I disturbed her sleep.”

Pierre Boivin, president of the Montreal Canadiens. He apologized after Montreal fans booed the U.S. national anthem this year, causing a stir. "We apologize to anyone who may have been offended by this incident," Boivin said.

Joyce Aboussie, key aide to Democratic presidential candidate Dick Gephardt. Aboussie threatened political retaliation against union leaders who support Howard Dean. Aboussie issued a qualified apology, saying she was sorry "if anyone felt threatened" by her words.

Trent Lott, U.S. Senator. Lott waxed nostalgic about the segregationist policies of Strom Thurmond, a controversy that cost Lott his leadership position. “I apologize to anyone who was offended by my statement," Lott said in his defense.

Patrick Kerney, Atlanta Falcons defensive lineman. Kerney went on an Atlanta radio show Dec. 1, and said how he was bummed to learn it was World AIDS Day, adding sarcastically that "people who get cancer — it's usually their fault" though "AIDS — it's just bad luck.” Kerney then issued a statement through the team, saying (you guessed it), “Whatever I did to offend people, I apologize." Kerney and Shockey must have the same apology writer.

Insincerity is the common thread running through all these examples, and I’m certain these people wouldn’t have uttered their “apologies” if no one had complained. This is not the same as realizing you said something wrong and then taking the initiative in trying to make it right.

A “non-apology apology” also puts the onus on those upset by them. “Why are all of you so freaking sensitive and PC?” they seem to be asking. It’s something we hear at Outsports all the time when we report on anti-gay slurs. We have to defend our anger and that’s just wrong; we’re not the ones at fault. We’ve had apologists saying Shockey was only joking, Kerney is really a good guy and Millen was simply responding to Morton telling him to “kiss my ass.”

What’s a proper apology? Surprisingly, Garrison Hearst of the San Francisco 49ers offered a good one after saying last year that he didn’t want any “faggots” as teammates. I was initially skeptical of Hearst’s apology, but it looks better under closer scrutiny.

“First of all, I want to apologize for the comments that I made, and to the gay community," Hearst said. “I didn't realize it would be so harmful. I want to direct it to my teammates for causing a disturbance among the team before this game.

"Being an African-American, I know that discrimination is wrong and I was wrong for saying what I said about anybody--any race, any religion. I want to apologize to the San Francisco 49ers organization, the City of San Francisco for the comments that I made, and to my teammates for bringing this distraction upon us. I hope that everyone can accept my apology. Thank you."

Hearst did not include the lame “if I offended” anyone dodge, seemed to have learned something (“I didn’t realize …”) and was able to see a linkage between discrimination he’s suffered as a black man and what gay people have to deal with. David Kopay, a former 49er and first ex-NFL player to come out, told me he accepted what Hearst said and thought he was sincere.

Apologies are ultimately about learning. About why our words hurt, about putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, about why something uttered in one setting is wrong in another. They are also about healing, about having people with different backgrounds, upbringings or points of views understand each other a little better. The “non-apology apology” accomplishes none of this. I am unapologetic when I say it's time to get rid of it.