Michael K. Shaub, February 10th, 2010
With Mark McGwire apologizing for his steroid use recently, I thought it would be appropriate to address the subject of saying “I’m sorry.” Years ago I expressed my view that a major gap in the implosion of Andersen after Enron was that they had never actually apologized. So kudos to Mark McGwire for coming out and saying he actually did it, albeit at least four, and perhaps ten, years too late.
However, his explanation seems a little less than forthcoming, in that he characterizes his use as only designed to maintain his health. It reminds me of the explanation offered by his companion both in the 1998 record home run chase and at the Congressional hearings, Sammy Sosa. In 2003, when there were already whispers about steroid use, Sosa’s bat cracked unexpectedly in a game and was discovered by the umpires to be corked. Caught with irrefutable evidence about his cheating to gain an advantage, he referred to it as a “mental mistake.”
As I said in an article at the time, mental mistakes do not bring into question integrity, but competence. In baseball that might include throwing to the wrong base or forgetting how many outs there are. But the questions with Sosa’s actions, and McGwire’s, are all about integrity.
The apology for issues of integrity is entirely different from the apology for issues of competence. I will sometimes have students apologize to me for their performance on an exam. I respect these apologies, but for the most part they are unnecessary, unless they are used by students to motivate themselves to give a better effort in preparing for the next exam. However, if a student apologizes for an issue of integrity in my class, it matters how that apology is expressed.
I have on many occasions apologized to my wife for my incompetenceâ€”in home repairs, car repairs, investments, you name it. Acknowledging my failure is usually more than sufficient to satisfy my wife, and often she does not even require that. I am guessing that for Tiger Woods simply saying, “Hey, I’m sorry, I messed up” was not sufficient.
So what should an apology look like for issues of integrity? My first piece of advice is to avoid, if at all possible, progressive revelation. McGwire’s confession to Bob Costas appears to be the kind of halfhearted trickle of information that often leads to a feeding frenzy as other reporters build a case for there being more to the story. And there are always the Jose Cansecos of the world around to fill in the details.
Second, the reason for the eventual confession ought to be acknowledged. These confessions are virtually always delayed until after some event that triggers the need to say something. In McGwire’s case, he not only received fewer Hall of Fame votes this year than Tim Raines, but he has been hired as the hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals, who are unlikely to be happy if he is a spring training sideshow. If these are not the reasons, why did he wait until now to apologize? These apologies ought to be prefaced with a simple acknowledgement that the time was right for specific reasons.
Third, there ought to be visible evidence of a changed heart. By this, I am not referring to the crocodile tears that seem prevalent when revelations are made. But when people get the sense that the confessor would do it all over again, given the chance, there is no hope of repairing a reputation. Even Pete Rose’s strongest supporters for entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame would be unwilling to bet their fortunes that, given the same set of circumstances, he would avoid the kinds of gambling he engaged in.
Fourth, there can be no residual attacks on those who have raised the issues. This has to be especially hard for people like McGwire, who is faced with continuing assertions that he was injected with steroids by Jose Canseco, one of the most unlikable truth-tellers in modern sports history. Of course, this attacking behavior is often part of the legal defense team’s strategy if there are still issues being addressed in court. But when you are apologizing for integrity failures, no one wants to hear you blame others.
And, as hard as it is, embrace the consequences of your action in a way that will lessen the chance that you make that choice again. My son’s first hero, when he was a five-year-old baseball player on the Rookie Cardinals, was “Mark-uh McGwire.” We have a picture together in our uniform shirts taken from the back, like the old Maris and Mantle pictures, and he wears that number 25 so proudly.
Today, he only winces when I mention the name McGwire. Mark McGwire will never see that, just as CEOs like Ken Lay and Dennis Kozlowski are often insulated from the betrayal of trust felt by investors and employees. But coming face-to-face with the consequences of a trust betrayal is often the most powerful deterrent to repeating the behavior.
Life is always better if you can avoid integrity failures, but it is relatively certain that most of us, from time to time, are going to fall short and need to say, “I’m sorry.” Being up front about what we have done and communicating a genuine rejection of the values that led us to fail are important. Leave the opinions about others’ culpability to others. And, as painful as it is, face up to the impact. It is the shortest route to refining character.
Categories: Bottom Line Ethics