As the initial reports began to trickle in, that the story of Ryan Lochte and others being robbed at gunpoint didn’t stand up to scrutiny, I braced myself for the inevitable.
First, the excuses from the powers that be, then the mitigating factors/explanations, and — my favorite part — the non-apology apology (NAA).
Excuses came from the spokesperson for the Rio Olympics organizing committee: “We need to understand that these kids were trying to have fun…let’s give these kids a break. Sometimes you take actions that you later regret.” 1
Oh, yes. Sometimes you do. I definitely have. Some have regrettably hurt other people, and some of those actions were under the influence of alcohol. (Interestingly, one of my most regrettable actions was kicking a chair one less-than-sober night in college and twenty years later I still have a bone out of place in my foot as proof. But I digress.)
In case you were worried that this case could be legally significant, the judge handling the case explained that “Making a false claim in Brazil was ‘not that serious’.” No worries, fully excusable. And the chief of staff for Brazil’s interim president made sure to point out that things are all still cool on the national level. “This episode will not in any way interfere in the relations between the U.S. and Brazil…This could have happened with individuals of any other nationality.” 2
Yes, in theory this could have happened with other Olympians. But it was not athletes from Jamaica or Japan that perpetrated this crime. It was Americans, white American male athletes.
The coverage then naturally segues into the mitigating factors, first for their behavior: they were “drunk.” And then for the lie: “At least one of the athletes may have had a motive for telling a story that wasn’t true.” 3 Ah, ok, so we should all understand that the alcohol excuses the behavior and the lies were necessary. Got it.
Of course, all of this is reason for concern (at the very least) or outrage (not unjustified). Many others will surely write about all of those topics: the impact on the people of Rio, the denigration of the Olympic ideal, further evidence of the privilege of white male U.S. athletes, the deification of athletes, and more.
But for me the story hinges on the apology.
When his NAA was posted today on Instagram — not spoken, of course, for that would require a greater level of courage and accountability — I simply nodded.
It was, as I could have anticipated, yet another Non-Apology Apology.
Before I parse out the components of his NAA, I can’t resist sharing just a few ways that his NAA was presented by media. New York Post: “Ryan Lochte posts apology for fudging robbery tale.” (FUDGING?!)The Elite Daily: “Ryan Lochte Posts Bizarre Apology: It’s ‘Traumatic To Be Out Late’ In Brazil.” (AWW. Poor thing.) To my shock, the headline that actually summed up my perspective comes from Fox Sports: “Ryan Lochte Issues Lame Non-apology for Olympic ‘Robbery’ Fiasco.”
Many years ago, I read an amazing book called “On Apology” by Aaron Lazare. In it, he explains not only the differences between cultures regarding apologies, but also talks about what makes apologies work or fail.
There are up to four parts to an effective apology, though not every apology requires all four parts. They are as follows.
1. A valid acknowledgment of the offense that makes clear who the offender is and who is the offended. The offender must clearly and completely acknowledge the offense.
2. An effective explanation, which shows an offense was neither intentional nor personal, and is unlikely to recur.
3. Expressions of remorse, shame, and humility, which show that the offender recognizes the suffering of the offended.
4. A reparation of some kind, in the form of a real or symbolic compensation for the offender’s transgression.
An effective apology must also satisfy at least one of seven psychological needs of an offended person.
1. The restoration of dignity in the offended person.
2. The affirmation that both parties have shared values and agree that the harm committed was wrong.
3. Validation that the victim was not responsible for the offense.
4. The assurance that the offended party is safe from a repeat offense.
5. Reparative justice, which occurs when the offended sees the offending party suffer through some type of punishment.
6. Reparation, when the victim receives some form of compensation for his pain.
7. A dialogue that allows the offended parties to express their feelings toward the offenders and even grieve over their losses. 4
Let’s take a closer look, shall we? Did Lochte incorporate any of the 4 parts of an effective apology?
As for identifying who the offender is (himself) and completely acknowledging the offense (in this case I am looking for an apology for the lies, not just the behavior that led to the lies), he fails. “Not being more careful and candid” and “I should have been much more responsible” is far from identifying himself as an offender or acknowledging the offense. While he says he “appreciates… the people of Brazil” at no point does he recognize that his acts were offensive to them.
Part two, effective explanations for the behavior, necessitates evidence that the offense was neither “intentional nor personal.” At no point does Lochte say that his lies were not meant to cast aspersions on the people of Brazil, nor does he claim that his lies were accidental. Rather, he blames the situation: “It’s traumatic to be out late with your friends in a foreign country…and have a stranger point a gun at you…” For this stage of apology to be met, he would have had to say “My lies were intended to cover up my own bad behavior, and I am sorry that they negatively impacted our host country.”
Which brings me to what I believe is at the heart of an effective apology: “Expressions of remorse, shame, and humility, which show that the offender recognizes the suffering of the offended.” Is there any piece of Lochte’s statement that shows remorse? “I should have been more careful” is not remorse. “I accept responsibility for my role” is not shame. “This was a situation that could and should have been avoided” is not humility. Saying that he is sorry for the impact of “how I handled myself” is not the same as expressing a true sense of regret for his behavior. He seems to just regret the results.
Imagine how different it would be if he said, “I take complete ownership not only of my behavior for that night, but also wish to express how embarrassed I am for myself and for my country that I made things worse by lying. I deeply regret my behavior and feel ashamed for acting this way.” Instead, he hightailed it out of Brazil, likely never to return (certainly not of his own volition at this point, though I hope that there will be legal ramifications). The fact that it was his other teammates who got yanked off the plane and had to answer to the police adds insult to injury. All that is missing in my visualization of the situation is Lochte hollering, as he takes off, “See Ya, Suckers!”
Now to reparation. An athlete who has now stolen the headlines for days as a result of his lies is in a powerful position, poised in front of the world’s microphone, to make amends. Continuing with my imaginary apology from above, he could say, “I blew it. I caused pain to many people, and I would like to make things right. I will come back to Rio on a goodwill tour and meet with upcoming Olympic athletes. I recognize that I am the only person to blame in this situation.”
Instead, he posts an NAA, and asks everyone to move on: “There has already been too much said and too many valuable resources dedicated to what happened last weekend.” Untrue, Ryan Lochte. There is much more to be said. We all make mistakes and some are deeply regrettable. But to be forgiven requires a much deeper and richer statement of truth and humility than predictable platitudes posted on Instagram.