No Apologies

Michael Phelps has apologized for his latest act of youthful “behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment” and ducks as the furor created by it subsides fairly quickly. After all, the story came to light (and was almost lost) during the gala of the Super Bowl. He’s apologized quickly and the repercussions will probably be fairly mild for the Olympic (and advertising) golden boy.

Yes, he hit that bong. No, it wasn’t the end of the world.

Sure, some parents may still be up in arms. Is he to be hailed as a role model to our youth? Well, I’d at the very least question his bong technique. Look, heroes sometimes have feet of clay. For everyone who asks, when these sort of pop cultural transgressions occur, “what will I tell my children,” -sometimes you have to explain to your kids that your hero made a mistake. Just like sometimes you have to explain that you don’t have to do everything any person does. In other words, you tell them the truth and you help them learn to discern.

Here’s the issue on my brain: Michael Phelps had a DUI four years earlier. He came out then, in front of the story, took ownership of what he did, sounded just as sincere, and promised it would never happen again. He took responsibility and he didn’t dodge the issue behind a scripted wall of lawyer-speak. He was slick, he was polished, he did all the things we want people to do. And let’s face it, America is a pretty forgiving place for the truly contrite. So what’s my beef?

We all have friends like this. Those who can’t get out of their own way, cycle into some self-destructive spiral or at least continue to make bad choices that you can’t save them from. You have to question their judgment, their ability to step back and make good decisions. It helps no one to continue to enable such poor behavior, much less kowtow to it. At what point do we start to question someone’s character? At what point do apologies become meaningless?

Because, seriously, you are a high profile figure, paid to endorse products, yet you place yourself in situations where you can have your picture taken hitting a bong?

Let me go at this another way. My two boys, Malcolm and Reese often fight. In an effort at good parenting (read: to get them to be quiet so I can continue watching television in peace), I make them apologize to one another. Of course it is done through gritted teeth, but we go through the motions of reconciliation in the hope that it takes. We can have the language of sorry, but we have to learn the practice of sorry. We need to see it lived out for it to mean anything.

Yes, the famous, the rich, the talented tend to get a pass. He may get a slap on the wrist, a stern talking to of some sort, but for the most part, Michael Phelps is going to get a pass. What we have is a great swimmer practiced at the art of apology. I hope, for his sake, that he means it this time.

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But My Best Friend is Black

Digital is forever.

We live in a digital age. There are cameras on street corners, at ATM machines, in our cell phones – our images caught who knows how many times per day and that’s without our knowledge. How much more so when we are on stage, in front of a crowd, a crowd that has turned against you when you decide to show your behind. If things you say on the Internet are there forever and can’t be unsaid, much moreso a recorded image. Like any other screen captured image, it’s on someone’s hard drive, waiting.

Hello Michael Richards.

You were bombing in a comedy club, some folks began to heckle you. Rather than go with any of a number of standard anti-heckler lines (that most stand ups carry in their back pockets), you go to the “you’re a nigger” card. How many times do we have to go over the fact that there are certain things you can’t say? Don’t give me “if he was Chris Rock or Dave Chappelle,” he isn’t. (If you want a blog on “the N-Word,” I’ll direct you to a post by Wrath James White.) Nor was he attempting to illustrate a point or create satire. No, he was bombing on a stage and lost his mind. But you know what? Losing one’s temper, being drunk, or whatever the latest excuse is for someone’s “I’m not a racist but here’s my tirade” rant, the stuff has to come from somewhere. If you go to that place, that well of hate–especially with the vehemence and contempt that some folks go there–at some level, you believe it.

Luckily, he apologized. Whew! Good thing he did that, I might have thought he was racist. Apologies are becoming a tough sell with me lately, especially celebrity apologies, and they especially ring hollow if the person apologizing is a repeat offender. Contrition is tough to gauge because when all is said and done, we can’t know what’s in another person’s heart. However, it’s going to take a while before I buy his apology. Granted, his career isn’t necessarily over, because he is well on his way toward Hollywood penitence: you screw up, you apologize (going on the circuit of late night talk shows; Oprah if you’re lucky), go into rehab (if applicable – maybe a good anger management) or otherwise lay low for awhile. Time heals a lot and our memories are notoriously short. On the whole, we as a country are pretty forgiving, but you have to show contrition or somehow demonstrate that you’re trying to change.

You have the right to say what you want. You also better be prepared to bear the consequences of you running your mouth, wherever you run it. You also have the right to apologize; howefver, we have the choice to forgive and I doubt anyone will forget. Because digital is forever.

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