by: Cynthia Fuchs / George Mason University

Some people do different things. Not saying that my wife would allow me to do that, but it’s just something that was done, and you move on.
–Donovan McNabb

I thought it hit at a lot of stereotypes toward athletes — black athletes in particular. I thought it was very insensitive on the heels of the Kobe Bryant situation, and I just don’t know that the Eagles PR people or the NFL would have let it go had it been a different player or a coach or an owner.
–Tony Dungy

Personally, I didn’t think it would have offended anyone, and if it did, I apologize.
–Terrell Owens

Apologizing is an art. And apologizing for tv is something else. Typically, tv apologies are designed to appease a public fury, as in the cases of Hugh Grant, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bill Clinton. Sometimes they’re poorly conceived (“I’m so sorry, my band started playing the wrong song!”), sometimes preemptive (Jim McGreevey), and sometimes liberating (Natalie Maines). But they’re always performative and strangely sensational.

Consider the recent rush of apologies surrounding Terrell Owens’ cross-promotional appearance with Desperate Housewives’ Nicollette Sheridan. At first, no one seemed to notice the causal event: in a skit preceding Monday Night Football, T.O. acted like he was distracted from his manly duty (to the Philadelphia Eagles) when Sheridan dropped her towel. Within 24 hours, however, the FCC reported a flood of complaints — 50,000 is the given number, even as, Frank Rich noted in the New York Times (28 November 2004), it’s likely that these were generated, or at least encouraged, by conservative action groups.

Such upset could not go unaddressed. And so crusader Michael Powell leaped into the public fray, announcing that the Commission would investigate whether the image of the white woman’s naked back wrapped in a black man’s arms constitutes “obscenity.” In the meantime, nearly everyone involved was told to be sorry, though each party involved found a way to pass blame. An NFL spokesman called the sketch “inappropriate and unsuitable for our Monday Night Football audience”; ABC Sports said, “We agree that the placement was inappropriate. We apologize”; and the Eagles announced, “It is normal for teams to cooperate with ABC in the development of an opening for its broadcast. After seeing the final piece, we wish it hadn’t aired.” We can only imagine how much they wish.

Amid this scramble to re-comport, no one expects Sheridan to say she’s sorry, because she was, after all, only playing a role — Edie, the campy tramp she plays each Sunday night, to the delight of some 24 million viewers. Owens, however, is always playing T.O., the celebrity wide receiver who has earned praise for his excellent game and censure for his spectacular end zone showmanship. These two responses typically collide in a kind of explosion of expectations. For one thing, as Tony Dungy points out, Owens is a black athlete in a hyper-mediated world, and he needs to be aware of that chaos and deal with it responsibly. That doesn’t make Owens or any other celebrity responsible for the chaos. It only makes him a likely target within its perpetual swirl.

Owens is, after all, a black man paid a lot of money for appealing, for the most part, to white male tv viewers. No matter how terrific his performance might be on a given Sunday, his audience — voracious consumers of images and icons, heroes and playmakers — still presumes he owes something. And so, while his partnership with quarterback Donovan McNabb has resulted in 13 touchdown receptions so far in 2004 (the best in the league) and put him in line to challenge Jerry Rice’s single-year record (22), both his fans and detractors want more. More points, more TD gyrations, more outrages.

While such anticipation isn’t specific to T.O., his particular affinity for tv cameras makes him an ideal star. Youngish (30) and cocky, beautiful and clever, he repeatedly delivers on the handheld camera’s promise of notoriety and desire. He’s more than willing to play the role of thrilling victor, utterly available and indestructible. He makes his emotions visible for cameras, by yelling at teammates or coaches on the sidelines, tearfully expressing his
gratitude for the new position. And he boasts for any reporter with a mic in his face, as when he guarantees wins or mouths off on Raven Ray Lewis’s “double murder case,” a brief, admittedly brash comment that hardly compares to the exploitative hay made of the story by cable news just a couple of years ago, it was poor taste and so, he was punished for it — by sports journalists, colleagues, and fans.

Like so many other adept tv performers — say, the President of the United States — Owens is not the sorry sort. He’s proud of his end-zone parties and weekly thinks up new ones, as pleasing to his fans as the antics on Wisteria Lane are to Desperate Housewives viewers. He’s also willing to discuss any new umbrage for camera crews. And so he decided, 18 November, to follow the leads of ABC and the NFL: he apologized for tv. Like Martha Stewart and Janet Jackson have performed their tv apologies, so too has T.O. On 18 November, he took up the optimum position, pronouncing the words in an order that allowed him to appear sorry for the ruckus but retain his dignity and sense of righteousness: “I felt like it was clean, the organization felt like it was a clean skit, and I think it just really got taken out of context with a lot of people and I apologize for that.” While he doesn’t quite concede the offense to those who assumed it (and thus reveals their sense of profound injury to be overreaction, given all the other misbehaviors on the planet that might offend them), he also offers just enough contrition to allow viewers to move on if they so desire.

This possibility of moving on was simultaneously compounded and complicated by the Motown Meltdown on Friday (19 November). Suddenly, Owens and Ron Artest became poster boys for the same problem. And no matter how this problem is parsed — sex and violence, misbehaving black men, egotistical sports stars — all of it is on tv and so demands suitably public penitence. As of this writing, Artest scheduled and then cancelled an apology press conference last week. As moving on is so plainly impossible, with or without the tv apology, caution seems a sane response.

iFilm video
ABC Sports
National Football League
Philadelphia Eagles

Please feel free to comment.


  • Kymberly Hernandez

    thrown apologies

    What constitutes an offensive television piece? It is nudity? Violence? Bad language? Wow, 50,000 complaints, you say? Out of how many millions of Americans? Yes, it’s absurd that a tiny portion of a huge American population can cause such a ruckus because they were “offended” or found something inappropriate. So absurd, I believe, that soon it will become policy for a television show, be it sitcom, reality, talk show, or hour-long drama, to have a prepared apology aired before every episode just to please the American complainers who might, just might, get offended by the show’s content. “We are sorry for any inconvenience if you are offended by the nature of the content of the following show.” Am I the only one who finds all this complaining to be an annoyance? Who’s to say what is offensive or inappropriate? True, television is supposed to be for “public interest, necessity, and convenience,” but does anyone truly believe it to have to be perfect? Or that it can be perfect? Even cartoons are “offensive” nowadays. I’m not saying that all of the complaining is ridiculous or that television isn’t offensive at all, but it just seems that everything is seen as taboo now. Instead of complaining maybe these complainers, who always seem to be in the minority, should turn off their televisions and read a book. Or maybe the book would offend them too, no?

  • What warrants an apology

    I did not see the event unfold on Monday Night Football. As such, despite the discourse surrounding the event, I have not been able to ascertain just what it is that was offensive about the incident. In times where I am outraged everyday by the U.S.’s actions across the globe, as well as by the televised coverage of those events. It is troubling that something so asinine causes an outrage potent enough to warrant official apologies.

  • tainted representation

    In our society, watching television, listening to the radio, and reading newspapers and magazines constitutes a great deal of time spent. As a result, the media we intake may have an effect on stereotypes that may be fashioned. In reading the article and looking into the varying arguments, I am disgusted by the attention that was given to the incident. It is quit obvious that the attention given to the commercial is in direct correlation with the coverage of minorities that are seemingly dismissed in the media. Often, minority representation is tainted as well as completely underrepresented. Rather than focusing on the real issues that matter such as, politics, religion, and economics; the media continually concentrates its news coverage on events that are irrelevant to the enhancement of our society. All the attention shown, promoted to the shaping of stereotypes that are still prevalent today. I question whether the commercial would have been such an issue if it was shown with a white, male, athlete. The problem of distorted representation will never be resolved if the power is still in the hands of the ignorant. This commercial may distract the viewer and tone down the skepticism that racial discrimination is no longer a problem when in actuality it is a larger problem then it was before. People may have focused on the provocative nature of the commercial rather then racial representation. Programming continues to promote certain ideologies and present a certain “type” of media coverage. Until the network promotes true racial depiction (which is hard to define or present), individuals will continually get distorted views of minorities and formulate stereotypes that are untrue. The continuation of conflating minorities as a “type” rather than an individual will continue because the power of economics prevails.

  • Shannon Douglas

    Professional Athletes Under the Microscope

    Pro athletes, especially superstars, are prime targets for all kinds of accusations in today’s society. The fact is that as a society we resent the success of these men and want to see them fail as much as we adore them and pine for their success. Television gladly perpetuates this sentiment. For example a few years ago the nation sat on the edge of it’s seat as Mark McGuire broke the single season home run record, at the same time allegations of steroid use saturated ESPN and other sports news networks. Recently, the same negative press has demonized Barry Bonds, as he gets closer to breaking Hank Aaron’s coveted career home run record. Professional athletes (and all other public figures) are not without err, however, is it morally acceptable that their mistakes come under public scrutiny? It is difficult to tell where this public bloodlust for celebrity mistakes began, but it is certain to continue as long as the public consumes a high volume of this kind of media.

  • Apology not needed

    I agree that the advertisement was pretty graphic for a show considered to be prime time, but I did not think that it warranted all the attention that it received. I think perhaps the television industry and the NFL in particular are still feeling the effects of the Janet Jackson incident. The Terrell Owens ad did show a lot of Sheridan’s body, but not near the extent of Janet Jackson. There were a few comments in the ad that, taken out of context, as they were, would seem a little racist and sexist. Was a public apology really warranted? I would have to say not really. I believe the scrutiny arises from athletes receiving much media attention and scrutiny, as mentioned in another response. That being said, the apology made by Owens probably was a good PR move on his part to keep his image at least somewhat wholesome and to keep some of ABC’s overly conservative white audience segments returning for more football.

  • Fake Apologies

    More times than not, public apologies are not genuine and unnecessary. But I do agree with Zach about the scrutiny celebrities and athletes receive, and the decisions they must make to maintain their image.I too saw the MNF scene with Terrell Owens. Initially, I thought it was humorous and a brilliant marketing strategy for “Desperate Housewives.” Yes, it could be viewed as offensive, but did Terrell Owens really need to apologize? No. He is the type of player that thrives off of attention and controversy. Furthermore, his apology was obviously written by his lawyer and did not seem genuine at all. When considering the impressive ratings from the following episode of “Desperate Housewives,” I believe ABC or Terrell Owens would not think twice about doing the publicity stunt all over again. Unfortunately, all it took was a small group of people to make some noise and the FCC is at your door. A public apology occurs, and everything is all good again.Recently Jason Giambi addressed the media and Yankee fans to apologize about his use of steroids. Of course, it was supposed to be a secret, until a tell-all book by Jose Canseco. Giambi confessed that he was “disappointed” in himself for his selfish actions. Are we supposed to buy this? Absolutely not. If he hadn’t taken these performance enhancers, one may argue that he would not have performed well enough to earn MVP honors a few years ago, and guarantee a contract over $100 million. It helped his career, and will give him financial security forever. To apologize for this makes a fool of everyone else.Television cannot be perfect and never will be. Effects of TV are obviously relative to the viewer, and there will always be a minority audience who feels offended. So how far can an apology actually extend?

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