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.

Nursing a Grievance

Today’s post brings together two interests of mine: church conflict, and apology — and it involves a church here in Michigan.

A church member had a conflict with church leadership, and the leaders issued her an apology. Sadly, it does not seem to have resolved the conflict and the member says she will no longer attend this particular church. Also, sadly, the conflict made the news.

While most church conflicts center on leadership, worship styles, or finances, the issue here is breastfeeding.

At the Naz Church in Brighton this past Father’s Day, Amy Marchand sat down on a bench in the church hallway and began breastfeeding her 1-year-old while waiting for her 4-year-old twins to finish Sunday school. Marchand does not use a cover when nursing, and church members reported that both breasts were exposed. That evening, a female church leader posted a private message to Marchand on FaceBook, advising her to use designated nursing areas from now on. Marchand said she felt shamed.

In keeping with biblical principles (Matthew 18:15), Marchand met with the senior pastor, Ben Walls, to discuss the issue, but it was not resolved, so Marchand brought her attorney to the second meeting. What Marchand heard the pastor say, according to the Detroit Free Press, is that her behavior was “immodest,” and could cause men to lust and stumble. She said what she wanted was a public apology, and a change to church policies on how to handle nursing mothers.

The pastor said that, in 30 years of ministry, many women have nursed their babies at church and this has never been a problem until now. The church has designated three different spaces for nursing mothers, but Marchand said none of them were convenient because she wanted to meet her twins when they left their class, but her baby was hungry.

The most telling sentence in the article is that Marchand felt that church staff were more focused on her “immodesty” and whether she might sue, than on her real issue. It sounds like the parties were talking past one another. Philippians 2:3-4 advises, “Look not only to your own interests, but also those of others.” Did church staff seek to understand how Marchand viewed her behavior? Did Marchand try to understand the church’s perspective? Nursing mothers want to feed their babies as necessary, without regard to appearances. Churches want to protect attenders from viewing others who are partially-clothed. Once the parties’ interests are identified, it becomes apparent why the Michigan Breastfeeding Anti-discrimination Act, which Marchand argued to the church, was irrelevant. The church’s objection was not to breastfeeding, but to exposure – the lack of bodily cover – , which the statute does not address. It also becomes clear why the church’s argument about protecting men and boys from lustful thoughts was not persuasive—that’s on men and boys, not on nursing moms.

This is a delicate issue, and  no doubt all parties sincerely tried to find a peaceful resolution. Unfortunately, they missed it.



An Amazing Use of Mediation

The “mediation” between Michigan State University and victims of sports doctor Larry Nassar keeps unfolding in ways atypical of mediations. The latest irregularities were revealed last week: not only was the mediated agreement made public (rare, even in cases involving public entities) but it included provisions involving the Michigan legislature (possibly unique).

The settlement, reached in May and approved by the MSU Trustee Board in June, was made public when it was filed in US District Court in Grand Rapids on July 13, and is expected to be approved by Judge Gordon Quist this week.

According to mlive, it included this under a list of “conditions precedent”:

“Michigan Legislation.

(1) Michigan Senate Bill 872 (2018) either shall

(A) fail to be enacted into law because it is withdrawn, defeated by vote, or otherwise fails to pass, or

(B) be amended to reduce the timeframe to bring otherwise time-barred Nassar-related claims to 90 days following enactment of Senate Bill 872 (2018); and

(2) Michigan Senate Bills 875 (2018) and 877 (2018) shall fail to be enacted into law because they are withdrawn, defeated by vote, or otherwise fail to pass.

The parties agree that this condition has been satisfied.”

The agreement was thus tied to the actions of a third-party, which seems risky for an agreement of this magnitude. Because it was labeled a “condition precedent” in the agreement, I don’t think it was an attempt to “bind” a third-party to the mediated agreement, as some have argued. But, even though the agreement purported to have some level of confidentiality, if this condition were leaked to the Legislature, it may have felt pressured to act on pending legislation. Whether or not the Michigan Legislature knew about this provision, it cooperated with it – Senate Bill 872 was adopted after being amended as specified, and Senate Bills 875 and 877 have languished in committee.

Without getting into the politics, it’s a fascinating use of mediation.


A Look at the Elon Musk Apology

Elon Musk apologized yesterday for accusing a British cave diver of being a pedophile. The diver, Vern Unsworth, is one of the heroes who assisted the Thai boys trapped in a cave the last couple weeks. Musk had offered to bring his mini-submarine to the cave site, confident it would assist in rescuing the trapped boys; Unsworth apparently didn’t think it would be helpful, and the two exchanged mean tweets. Musk tweeted last Saturday that Unsworth was likely a pedophile, and he decided yesterday to apologize for that:

“His actions against me do not justify my actions against him, and for that I apologize to Mr. Unsworth and to the companies I represent as leader. The fault is mine and mine alone.”

The good parts of this apology:

  • Mr. Musk is taking responsibility here, especially with the line about it being solely his fault.
  • He’s addressing not just his immediate “victim” but the secondary ring of people who were offended, namely, his companies’ employees and investors. (USA Today reported that Tesla shares fell after Musk’s attack on Unsworth.)


The not-so-good parts:

  • It isn’t exactly clear what he is apologizing for. He says simply, “my actions.” Accusing someone publicly of being a pedophile is defamatory — serious stuff. A vague phrase like “my actions” leaves listeners wondering whether he really knows what he did that was so offensive.
  • He just couldn’t resist the temptation to shoot an(other) arrow at his “victim” in his attempt at an apology. Any aspect of blame-shifting usually undermines the sincerity of an apology. Mr. Unsworth said some nasty things to/about Mr. Musk too, but the initial apology is not the place to point that out. It would’ve been better if Mr. Musk had simply said, “There is no way to justify the terrible thing I said of him.”


Advice on Apologies in Litigated Cases

A Canadian litigator recently offered some advice regarding an apology in litigated cases. Canada has a federal “apology act,” much like many U. S. states, which makes a statement of sympathy or regret inadmissible to prove liability. But the law has limitations, that lawyers are duty-bound to point out to their clients, lest clients think this will get them off the hook. For example, if the offender saves his apology until trial, it is not protected and can be used as evidence of liability.

Michigan’s “apology act” is limited to medical malpractice actions. It doesn’t have the specific exception about trial and deposition testimony that Canada’s act has, but it is limited to protecting statements made to the victim and the victim’s family, so a statement of sympathy made in court might not be protected under the statute.

Nevertheless, a sincere expression of regret can go a long ways towards preventing a lawsuit in the first place.



Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers: