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Fallen sports heroes seek forgiveness

What is it about the media and, by implication, the public, that seems to require a public confession from our fallen heroes and icons?

By Richard C. Crepeau

From the International Journal of Sport Communication


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What is it about the media and, by implication, the public, that seems to require a public confession from our fallen heroes and icons? As I watched some of the Mark McGwire interview with Bob Costas I wondered if it had started with McGwire’s looking at the floor and saying, “Forgive me Bobby, for I have sinned.” I trust it did not, even though it might have added to the ambiance.

As the parade of juicers have made their way across the Baseball Diamonds of America and onto our TV sets confessing their sins, I have been struck by the need there seems to be for the public humiliation of offenders. It is reminiscent of the “stocks” used in Colonial days for public penance. I suppose we should be thankful we do not require the offenders to carry the brand “J” burnt into their foreheads.

Not only does this public humiliation seem to be a necessary part of the ritual, but the first reaction to it seems to nearly always be ridicule of the supplicant. Jason Giambi’s inarticulate admission to having done “something,” which he could not seem to name, was followed by media ridicule of his hapless performance. Then after a “decent interval,” one made shorter when the guilty perform heroic acts that win games, the press and public cheer the redeemed hero, sometimes louder than ever before.

The confession of Alex Rodriguez was typical of the pattern. A-Rod confessed to having “juiced” but hedged his confession with suggestions that it was only for a short time and that some mysterious “cousin” was the catalyst in the transgressions. He tried to look sincere and repentant, but he simply looked awkward and gave the impression he was a bald-faced liar. The howling after A-Rod’s confession, the jokes about the “cousin” that swept the Internet and baseball Web sites, along with the simple refusal to believe anything he said, were quite striking.

This all took place before the baseball season began. When A-Rod started delivering the home runs, including one in his first appearance at bat in the regular season, the tide began to change. There was wonder at this opening gambit in his comeback. This was followed by a long drought at the plate, and then by one of his best seasons and absolutely his best postseason ever. Alex Rodriguez was a hero once again. The missing cousin was a distant memory. The bald-faced liar emerged as the darling of Yankees fans, who now approved of the women he dated and hailed him as the man who brought a World Series victory to the Bronx for the first time in nearly a decade.

Andy Pettitte was another of those seeking redemption through confession, and he was able to do so while getting cover from the public interest in Roger Clemens. Pettitte, too, took the humiliation medicine, looked intensely contrite, and because he was such a lovable guy and not Roger Clemens, he was quickly forgiven. He too would be cheered as he delivered for the Yankees. As we have learned over the years, winning trumps all. This is why there was so much “feel good” about the Yankee trinity of juicers.

On the other hand is the case of Mark McGwire. No longer an active player, McGwire will not get that same opportunity to sweep away all malice through heroic acts. Although given the reception that McGwire got in his first postinterview St. Louis appearance, it would seem he needs to do nothing else, at least in Cardinal Country. Since then former players, perhaps feeling that they must affirm their own innocence, or indeed genuinely outraged, have publicly denounced the hero of St. Louis.

As for Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, and Sammy Sosa, three who have not confessed their sins and publicly sought forgiveness, it is unlikely they will ever be forgiven. The public requires more than they can give, so their names will remain in infamy.

It was a near certainty that Tiger Woods would be required to undergo a similar ritual cleansing, even though the passage of time might mute the public disdain, just as it did with former President Clinton and the parade of philanderers who have marched across the political and show business landscapes. For Tiger, humiliation preceded his confessional moment. The ridicule heaped on him on the Internet alone was massive and stinging. The prurient interest in his whereabouts highlighted one week by rumors of plastic surgery in Arizona and the next by Tiger sightings at a sex addiction clinic in Mississippi seemed to be driven by a public appetite for any shard of Tiger news of a humbling kind.

Then came Tiger’s public confession. Controlled and carefully staged, as anticipated, Tiger was still able to convey some indication of human emotion and feeling. But was it truly the confessional moment required for public sinners? For many in the public and media on that day, it was. The quivering voice and tearing-up moment, however brief, revealed a minor lapse of total control. This seemed enough for many.

For others the choice of words was a bit troublesome, especially when Tiger asked his fans to once again believe in him, rather than to forgive him. He raised further doubts when he took his confessional time to rant against the media, raising the issue of the sincerity of his contrition.

Whether this was enough and will be accepted as an adequate confessional act remains to be seen. It is in any case likely to be overshadowed by his return to the golf course. More important, when he begins to win tournaments and makes those pressure putts and circus shots from the rough, the roster of his affairs will pale in importance. After a few weeks of stellar golf, Tiger Woods will be cheered, his concentration will once again produce wonder, and his dalliance at the pancake house will be all but forgotten.

It is an old, even ancient story, only now on an electronic stage. The hero is lionized, placed on a pedestal, knocked to the ground when proven to be human, and then embraced once again. Only a few hard-hearted moralists and hypocritical media types could possibly refuse to dispense absolution.

This is a commentary from the International Journal of Sport Communication. To learn more or subscribe to the journal, visit

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