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Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti. (Randy Quan For The Globe and Mail)
Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti. (Randy Quan For The Globe and Mail)

Elizabeth Renzetti

Is any currency so debased as the modern mea culpa? Add to ...

It seems Luis Suarez finally found his conscience, perhaps while searching behind the sofa cushions for the remote so he could turn off the World Cup games that no longer required his presence. A week after he landed, incisors down, on the meaty shoulder of Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini, Mr. Suarez finally decided that this bit of violence was not an accident, nor a conspiracy, but his fault and his alone.

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And so Uruguay’s greatest football player, who has less self-control than a month-old border collie puppy, issued an apology of sorts. He did not write Signor Chiellini a letter, nor did he pick up the phone. Following the current fashion for acts of public contrition, he tapped it out on a keyboard. Or at least someone in his employ did. It reads, in part:

“Independent from the fallout and the contradicting declarations that have surfaced during these past days, all of which have been without the intention of interfering with the good performance of my national team, the truth is that my colleague Giorgio Chiellini suffered the physical result of a bite in the collision he suffered with me. For this I deeply regret what occurred. I apologize to Giorgio Chiellini and the entire football family. I vow to the public that there will never again be another incident like this.”

I think it reads better in the original vampire. In any case, most in the football world cast a skeptical eye over Mr. Suarez’s apology, which arrived along with speculation that he is about to join Barcelona’s famed football club. In the delicate phrasing of the Daily Telegraph, “It has been suggested that Barcelona encouraged Suarez to apologize for his actions.”

Is there any currency so debased as the modern mea culpa? Recently, we’ve had a half-hearted apology from Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg (for the company’s role in a bizarre study that manipulated its users’ emotions) and a more abject one from the new CEO of General Motors, for the grievous and deadly error of ignoring faulty ignition switches for a decade.

Then, of course, there was the latest stop on Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s Sorrypallooza Tour ’14, in which the freshly-returned-from-rehab politician issued yet another apology for various crimes against decency. If a person needs 10,000 hours to truly master a skill, as Malcolm Gladwell has suggested, then Mr. Ford may well be on his way to a gold medal in the Acting Contrite Olympics. The problem, of course, is that when a word is repeated often enough, it ceases to have any meaning whatsoever, and becomes a vaguely irritating background hum. Sorry isn’t the hardest word, as Elton John sang, but is rapidly becoming the cheapest one.

There is a rule in my house: In order to apologize properly, you have to name the transgression (“I’m sorry I tried to gouge your eye out with my Monster High doll”) and say it to the other person’s face.

It’s also understood that the potency of the apology lessens with each successive eye-gouging. You are not allowed to pass off your own mistakes as the work of your chief of staff, or to suggest you were insensate with drink when any gouging took place.

Sadly, these are not rules that can be enforced in the realm of sports, politics, business, celebrity or anywhere else where contrition is less about extending an olive branch than climbing a stepladder out of a public-relations hole. Historically, contrition was accompanied by some form of punishment, or at least moral or physical effort – Hail Marys, let’s say, or handing over a goat or two to the person you’d offended. Now, as with Gary Oldman, you can simply appear on Jimmy Kimmel to apologize for an ill-considered rant about ethnic groups, and you’re home free. At least Mr. Oldman had the grace to be self-lacerating: “I’m an a-hole,” he said, “And I’m 56, and I should know better.”

The modern public apology comes wrapped in the notion that the apology itself is consequence enough: The effort to work up a few crocodile tears wipes out the offence, like a cosmic eraser. I particularly enjoyed Sepp Blatter of FIFA insisting that Luis Suarez should be forgiven his serial gnawing of opponents because the Uruguayan striker had spent 30 seconds crying over a hot keyboard.

“He said ‘I’m sorry’ to the soccer family, and that’s fair play, too,” said Mr. Blatter (who might himself think about apologizing to the soccer family for selling its shiniest bauble, the World Cup, to the highest bidder). “That shows he’s a great player and I hope he can have his soccer career back.”

Actually, it doesn’t show anything of the sort. It shows that Mr. Suarez was stung by FIFA’s four-month ban, and that his canny advisers told him that he’d better apologize for biting the hand that fed him if he wanted to get to Spain.

In any case, he’d better keep his mouth shut now. People have an extraordinary capacity for forgiveness – but not for feeling like chumps.

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