Apology

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.

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