Apologies: Are They Working?

Karen Gross
Feb 15 · 5 min read

Sometimes we make mistakes and we make a mess of things — literally and figuratively. Of late, many people in high (and low) positions have had a need to apologize for something they did; some have apologized and some haven’t. What is worrying me of late is whether the apologies that have been given are genuine and well-done and sincere. I wonder, too, whether the apologies given, in essence, mitigate the harm done.

If you want to ponder situations where apologies are needed, just listen to the news or read newspapers and the bad deeds of folks fly off the pages and through the airwaves.

My prime example, for purposes of this post, relates to the Houston Astros and their cheating scandal (although the word “cheating” did not get uttered in their apologies on Thursday best as I can tell). Sign stealing — within limits — is part of baseball. But, what the Astros did was steal in ways that go way over the top so to speak (videos and signaling to dugout and dugout banging to message as well as a “war room” with a youthful programmer). And baseballs literally flew out of the park.

And no one on any time or any Commissioner’s office noticed or stopped the behavior? Banging?????

And, there are also allegations that some players wore buzzers — one assumes with different lengths or numbers of buzzes to signal certain incoming pitches. These buzzers have not been found; gee, wonder where they went. And how about the images of a player holding his shirt to his chest and then changing into another shirt after he hit a game winning home run? Suspicious? You bet.

Now, maybe other teams do all or some of this too; it’s hard to tell but one team surely got caught and that others cheat doesn’t excuse the Astros behavior. Neither does saying they were a good team anyway and would have won but for the cheating.

It is cheating whether you needed it to win or not.

Now, there seems to be widespread involvement in this scandal — from players to staff and then all the way up to the manager and GM (and perhaps beyond). This is not uncommon in other scandals or bad situations: knowledge is not housed in the few although only a few admit to involvement initially. Take the college admissions scandal involving high income parents and coaches and tutors and… Take the Penn State scandal. Take the recent cult activities and father living in a dorm at Sarah Lawrence. Take the Matt Lauer scandals.

Here’s my point: lots of people actually are involved or know about scandals and yet, the few actually initially take the fall. Sometimes others fall later.

Back to the Astros, the fall here was taken by the fired two top employees: the GM and the Manager. Yet, there was deep player involvement and their lame apologies yesterday were hardly enough. And, the best apologies were the players formerly, but not now, on the Astros team. How is it that the players don’t get held accountable? And how does a new Manager and current owner’s apology suffice with wee contrition from players? Who handled (mishandled) the PR on this?

Yes, there is an asterisk. And perhaps the players will feel the heat of being cheaters as their career progresses. Think steroids and betting. Maybe they will see it and hear it when the Astros team travels to other parks this season.

Here’s a part of this that has not gotten enough attention. Start here: yes, the Astros won the Pennant and in so doing deprived others of it. Yes, they made it far in the playoffs for a couple years. Taking away a Banner might message well but it does not fix this reality: some non-Astro players’ careers — pitchers on other teams — were harmed. They lost games; their ERAs shot up; they were booed in stadiums; they lost out on bonuses and raises; they felt like failures.

[See * below added post original publication.]

In essence, while hard to view them this way given their positions and their salaries, here were victims of the Astros scandal: certain players on other teams. For real. How do these players get back what they lost? They don’t. Sure, they did not suffer like many victims. They are not rape victims; they did not suffer bodily assaults. But, they were damaged, monetarily and perhaps psychologically. And, we don’t know how some players got back their equilibrium after being so pounded by hitters on the Astros.*

Here’s another group that was and remains hurt: non-Astros fans and perhaps Astros fans too. We don’t want our heroes to cheat as the way to win. I get that we recognize that some cheating happens. But, suppose Tiger Woods used an illegal ball to win the Masters. Bad. Suppose an opposing football team stole the playbook of another team they were playing in the Superbowl. Bad. Suppose some students stole a professor’s notes on the answers to essay questions on the exam. Bad.

Come on. We’d be ticked off — unless we were the ones who did the wrong. And, in the latter case, would we be contrite? Is the problem that the apologies seem to hinge on being caught, rather than doing the wrong in the first instance. But for getting caught….

Speaking of contrite: that is not what the Astros were at their apology session. They seemed to think: one day of “apologizing” was enough and let’s move on. New day. New season. New manager. What’s done is done. I actually think their lack of contriteness, their unwillingness to own their mistakes will continue — and should continue — to haunt them. To me, the owner seemed like the press conference was wasting his time; he was non-plussed so to speak.

For those of us who are educators, cheating is a common issue. And we may have disagreements as to what is cheating. And, we may have disagreements as to whether an apology is enough to eliminate the bad act. If you plagiarize and then say: sorry, is everything now fine?

Think about the Harvard professor in computer science who has a “regret clause” in the course syllabus. If you apologize for getting help on a particular problem set and tell the professor you are sorry, you get an F on that piece of work but then the professor gets you any needed help and nothing is reported to the disciplinary committee. Now we can and should debate whether getting help on problem sets is cheating (Might we want students to work together and ask others for help?) But, few students use the regret clause. Gee, what a shock! People don’t disclose that they cheated and wait to be caught — if they ever are caught.

We need to think way more about this. Call this piece an appetizer. We need to spend way more time thinking about and addressing these issues. In the meanwhile, ponder what it means to apologize. Do we know what that means — in any setting?

*Since this piece was published, a pitcher not on the Astros sued the Astros because his career was derailed. Please look up Mike Bolsinger. Sure, perhaps he would have struggled anyway but were I a betting person, I’d say the 2017 season lambasts did him in.

Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor

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