Our national fascination for remorse is back in the news, as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell says that a profound, heartfelt and binding apology from Michael Vick would advance his chances of reinstatement.
Which is fine as far as it goes. Goodell has the job, Vick wants it, and barring some violation of law, Goodell can set the terms of the reinstatement all the way down to "First, learn to play the accordion."
|If Michael Vick apologizes, the act will be judged in the court of public opinion -- and by Roger Goodell. (Getty Images)|
You see, Goodell has shown in his time wearing the big hat that he understands where the customer stands on the big football issues. He also has shown that he works for the owners, but that is standard for any commissioner who lasts more than six months. The point here is, he looks like he knows what folks want, and is willing to exercise his power to get it.
And with Vick, he wants the apology because he senses that the customers want the apology. He senses this because the public seems to want the apology from Mark McGwire, and Barry Bonds, and Pete Rose, and Adam Jones, and Matt Jones, and all the other members of the Tin-Ear Club.
The public wants the acknowledgement that their heroes do occasionally have feet of clay, know they have feet of clay and subjugate their egos to that knowledge. They want the athletes to feel like they need forgiveness, and they cling to the notion that they are the ones who have the key to the forgiveness room.
Boiling it down, the people want to forgive, but they want the person they forgive to accept that they need to be forgiven and ask for it in a way that the public, in its mass wisdom, judges to be genuine. Provisional mercy, I think it's called, and you theologians in the crowd can argue over the validity of that concept.
In the Vick case, that act of contrition is required for him to get out of his disastrous financial situation. He owes millions to creditors, and his ability to get out of that mess relies in large part on his intention and ability to get back into the league. He also still has more legal issues, including charges from the Department of Labor that he illegally withdrew $1.3 million from the pension plan of a company he owned.
In other words, his sincerity is directly linked to his extraction from what seems an intractable vise, and if that is the case, who knows how sincere it could possibly be? And if you can't be sure of one's sincerity, what then are you asking for?
The show. The appearance of sincerity as judged by public opinion. A full and visible humiliation that looks so much like the real thing that it could pass for the real thing. And given the long list of public apologies that didn't pass muster, most recently the Alex Rodriguez shams, the pressure on Vick to look the part is far greater than anything he has ever faced as an athlete.
He has to sell himself to a public that (a) isn't very fond of him or his crimes, and (b) is at least partially cynicized by the whole stage-managed public apology and therefore reluctant to commit itself fully to his abject admissions. And the judge of those admissions, and of the reaction to those admissions, is Roger Goodell.
He as much said so when he was quoted by USA Today from the owners meetings in California: "I think it's clear he's paid a price, but to a large extent he's going to have to demonstrate to the larger community -- not just to the NFL community and to me -- that he has remorse for what he did and that he recognizes mistakes that he made."
That's quite the bar for Vick to clear, convincing the commissioner that his abasement not only passes league and legal but full cultural and social muster. But that's the lesson Goodell means to impart here -- that in the Vick case and presumably future cases of similar magnitude, he will be not only omniscient but omnipotent. And if Goodell can be both those things, maybe he is underpaid.
But not underfeared. That, he seems to have mastered.
Ray Ratto is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.