Apology for a Weak Apology

Ohio State University Football Coach Urban Meyer issued two apologies this week: one on Wednesday, for his mishandling of abuse allegations against one of his assistant coaches; and another yesterday, for not including an apology to the coach’s wife in his previous apology.

A university investigation revealed last week that an assistant football coach, Zach Smith, had a list of employment performance issues over the last few years that his boss, Coach Meyer, chose to ignore. In addition, Smith’s wife Courtney alleged several times that her husband had physically abused her, which Meyer also chose to ignore. Meyer finally fired Zach Smith last month, after Courtney Smith obtained a restraining order against him; and the University suspended Meyer for three weeks for failing to follow university procedures regarding Smith’s behavior.

In Wednesday’s apology, Meyer acknowledged that he “led with his heart, not his head,” in failing to address the allegations against Zach Smith, with whom he had a family-like relationship.  “At each juncture, I gave Zach Smith the benefit of the doubt.” As apologies go, there were some good lines in this one, which indicated some humility and regret. It sounds sincere. However, when asked by a reporter on Wednesday about whether he had a message for Mrs. Smith, he said only, “I’m sorry we are in this situation.”

Yesterday, Coach Meyer issued the following statement, that he tweeted and university officials emailed:

“Let me say here and now what I should have said on Wednesday: I sincerely apologize to Courtney Smith and her children for what they have gone through. My words and demeanor on Wednesday did not show how seriously I take relationship violence. This has been a real learning experience for me. I fully intend to use my voice more effectively to be a part of the solution.”

The media are referring to this statement as an apology, but it’s more of a statement of regret than an apology. Anyone could have issued this statement — even those of us who do not know Mrs. Smith are sorry “for what they’ve gone through,” take relationship violence seriously, and would like to be part of the solution. One of the principles of a good apology is that it takes responsibility for the offending behavior, best demonstrated by specifically naming it. In contrast, Coach Meyer seems to be sorry only for the impact, rather than identifying anything he did to contribute to “what Courtney Smith and her children have gone through.”

A more effective apology would say something like, “I now realize how my failure to act on these allegations contributed to the Smith family’s suffering. I could have done something to stop this years ago, but I did nothing. I hurt Zach’s family, I hurt Zach, I hurt our team and our program. I’m going to use this three-week suspension to examine my behavior and hopefully emerge from this as a better coach and a stronger voice against domestic violence.”

Given his years of denial regarding Mr. Smith’s aberrant behavior, I would not expect Coach Meyer to be able to make an apology like that right away. It will take time for him to reflect on how he got this wrong. The media demand immediate an response, and he did his best under the circumstances. Perhaps his suspension will give him the time he needs to get it right.

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