Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Living in the Land of Never Wrong

I just don't understand why it is so difficult for people--especially famous ones--to say two little words: "I'm sorry."

Every single one of us makes mistakes in life. No one knows that better than I do. When you write as often as I do, you're going to make mistakes--sometimes from a faulty memory; sometimes from a pure mind block; sometimes from not doing enough research. The other day in this blog I somehow wrote that the Yankees last won a World Series in 2001. How that happened I don't know but it did. I'm sorry.

Four years ago, doing a Navy radio broadcast of a game at Duke I became so frustrated with the incompetence of the officials that, after a clear push-off by a Duke player on a two-point conversion try that tied the game I heard someone say, "------ referees!: There was no seven second delay and when I looked around the booth to see who had lost their composure and realized everyone was staring at me. What a sick feeling that was. I took myself off the air, told the Navy people what had happened and offered to resign on the spot. Both Chet Gladchuk and Eric Ruden--the athletic director and senior associate AD--said absolutely not. We agreed I would go back on and apologize. I remember Eric saying, "you're right to apologize. Do it and that will be the end of it."

"I'll apologize Eric," I said. "But I guarantee you that won't be the end of it."

I apologized--no, "if I offended anybody," clauses; nothing about how lousy the officiating had been (Paul Johnson, the WINNING coach in the game was so angry when it was over he chased the officials off the field) or anything like that. Just, "I'm sorry," which I was. There was no excuse for what had happened.

The Navy people were amazing about the whole thing. I was right that my apology wasn't the end of it. There were calls from the media all week. Would I be suspended? No, said Ruden to all callers. "John made a mistake. He took himself off the air and apologized instantly. That's enough."

I have now done Navy football games for 13 years. To this day I get cracks about, "did you get through the broadcast without using profanity this week?" I've written 25 books and there is more in my Wikipedia bio on the incident at Duke than on the books. The other day when Serena Williams lost her mind at the U.S. Open some clever guy e-mailed my friend Tony Kornheiser's radio show asking if I had given Serena lessons in how to use profanity. To be honest, the fact that Tony read it on the air annoys me. But you know what? It's my fault because I did it. No one else is responsible.

Which leads me back to Serena Williams. I have no idea what the lineswoman was thinking at such a crucial juncture when she called a foot-fault (and thus, a double-fault) on Williams when she was down a set and 5-6, 15-30 against Kim Clijsters in the U.S. Open semifinals Saturday night. The fact that the USTA is refusing to release her name is ridiculous. She's out there on court, she's being paid (not quite as much as the players) she should take responsibility for all her calls and explain what she was thinking--or not thinking--at that moment.

But that's not what's important. Williams' reaction to the call is what's important. She lost her mind. Look, bad calls happen in sports. You can argue, you can ask the umpire to overrule (in tennis) or to ask the lineswoman if she's absolutely sure or ask to play a let. But once you lose the argument you can NOT threaten the umpire while screaming profanities at her. You can't say ------ referees and you can't threaten to shove a tennis ball down someone's throat.

In fact, if the incident had happened earlier in the match the officials would have been justified in calling "gross misconduct," on Williams and defaulting her on the spot. As it was, they gave her a point penalty since it was her second violation of the match (smashed racquet earlier) and that meant game, set, match to Clijsters who was probably the most stunned person in the stadium.

Okay, Williams made a mistake. I can certainly relate. She's going to be subjected to replays of that moment forever. There's nothing she can do about it. But she could have made life a lot better for herself by coming in to the interview room and saying, "I don't know what happened out there. I just completely lost it for a moment and I'm truly sorry."

That would NOT have been the end of it--as I can attest--but it would have toned down the criticism quite a bit. Things do happen in the heat of the moment and we all blow it on occasion. But Williams pulled a LeBron James. On Saturday night she talked about how her "passion," for what she did had caused her to get so angry. No apology. The next day she issued a statement. Still no apology--much like James saying the day after his team's loss to the Orlando Magic that "winners," don't shake hands after losing. Dig the hole a little deeper.

Maybe if Williams' agent, Jill Smoller, hadn't been so busy trying to stick her hand in front of cameras on Saturday night, she would have had time to do her job and sit her client down and tell her, "you made a mistake--a bad one. Apologize, REALLY apologize right now."

It took until Monday for people to get to Williams and convince her to "amend," her apology. (Her word) It was an apology for the apology. Carefully written and worded, with all sorts of references to how great SHE is, Williams did finally apologize to everyone involved. When poor Patrick McEnroe asked her during the doubles award ceremony why she had amended her apology, HE was booed. What are people thinking? He was doing his job asking the exact right question. Venus Williams grabbed the mike and said, "let's just move on."

That's fine. But moving on--especially after botching the first two attempts to admit a mistake--isn't always that easy. There won't be any suspension for Serena--you think the USTA, CBS or ESPN want an Open next year without her?--and, fans being fans, it won't be her fault before all is said and done. Sort of like that chair back in 1985 that got what it deserved when Bob Knight tossed it across a court.

We seem to live in an era where no one is every responsible for their actions. Joe Wilson said he was sorry--sort of--for yelling 'you lied,' at The President of the United States during a joint session of Congress. In the same breath he claimed (incorrectly) that he was right about what was in the Health Care bill. No doubt Kanye West will be sorry for his reprehensible behavior at the country music awards but will note that Beyonce still should have won.

I call it living in the Land of Never Wrong. Famous people are constantly surrounded by enablers who tell them that they're never wrong regardless of what they do. The year I was working on "A Season on the Brink," I sat and listened to people rationalize Knight's behavior--including the chair throw--until it became laughable. One night, after a dramatic overtime win over Purdue, Knight walked into his postgame press conference and went on and on about how beautiful the day had been and how he had paused to try to put basketball into perspective that afternoon. Then he said he didn't have time for any questions and that the Indiana locker room was closed.

When I asked him a few minutes later why he had done that he said, "just my little victory." His friends thought that was really great--really nailed the media. Maybe it did. It also nailed all the Indiana fans who would have liked to have heard what Knight thought about the comeback and it nailed his players--especially Steve Alford, whose heroics pulled the game out and went largely ignored because Knight made himself the story (again) with his behavior. When I tried to point that out to Knight (pretty brave I thought) I was shouted down even before Knight could look at me and say, "aah, you're just one of them when it's all said and done."


And for that I do NOT apologize.


Anonymous said...

So, is it more prevalent these days to have the qualified apology, or has it always been the case? With the internet and the quick spread of all information and scandal, it seems all that MORE important to get out in front, and do it quickly and in a clean matter. Something tells me that isn't the case though.

How do I get one of the highly paid PR spots that the idiots of today get?

Shaun E in PC said...

It's unfortunate, but shows lack of maturity. Michael Vick fell into the same pattern.

The cover up is always worse than the crime. Admit the mistake, apologize mean it and then move on.

Gunnar said...

It gets more and more difficult to relate to or embrace professional entertainers. Serena Williams, Tiger Woods(swearing, club throws, dull and scripted answers), LeBron James, Kanye West,Jordan(his HOF rant). It is the reason I embrace college sports more, especially the non-revenue sports. It is also why we like Taylor Swift, Susan Boyle and others, as newcomers in entertainment.

Anonymous said...

I felt like the e-mail Tony read on the radio show was more a reference to a penchant you have for swearing a fair amount in general. I don't know you, so I don't know if that is true, but when you were on the show recently you yourself made a few references to that, including about the end of the Red Auerbach lunches. I didn't feel it was referencing the Navy-Duke game at all.