How to Overcome that Hardest Word

I’ve written several times on the subject of apologies and how many of the things that go by that name really aren’t. I’m several weeks late, but I thought it was only right to highlight a real apology, one you can point to and say, “It’s hard, but it can be done.”

In late May, Jordan McNair, a young man on the football team at the University of Maryland, collapsed during a team workout. He died two weeks later.

A couple of months later, ESPN released a story on the culture at UM football. It was, predictably, not complementary–the word “toxic” appeared in the headline. After ESPN provided UM officials with details about the upcoming report in an interview, UM said they were placing members of their athletic staff on administrative leave pending an external review.

So far, things had gone pretty much the way you expect them to. Which made the press conference with UM President Wallace Loh a few days later so surprising.

I found a video of the full press conference at the time, but the best I’ve been able to find today is this one. (Hit the right button on the video window until you get to 4/12.) That link also has a written transcript.

I’ll quote the first few sentences:

Thank you, Katie, and thank you all for being here this afternoon on relatively short notice. Damon and I just got back from Baltimore. We went there this morning to meet with the parents of Jordan McNair. And I wanted to meet with them in private to express on behalf of the university our apology for their loss of their son. I said to them — and I said I will be mentioning it publicly this afternoon, but I wanted them to hear it directly from me this morning — the university accepts legal and moral responsibility for the mistakes that our training staff made on that fateful workout day of May the 29th, which of course led subsequently to his death on June 13.

“We messed up, we were wrong, and we accept responsibility for the aftermath.” Clear, concise, and contrite. All of the things our previous examples have been lacking.

Now, you can argue that statement probably should have come well before August 14th, and you would be right. You can also argue that it was the reaction to ESPN’s report instead of responding to the actual event of McNair’s death, and you would probably be right there, too. In cases like this, a real apology has to be followed up by real action, or the apology, good or not, loses its effectiveness. As of today, the independent investigation UM launched into its football culture has still not been finalized. It’s past time for that to be done.

Still, this isn’t intended to be a celebration of UM’s entire approach following McNair’s death, merely an acknowledgement that Dr. Loh’s apology sounded like an apology should sound. When you’re looking around for a good example of an apology, you can do worse (a lot worse, as we’ve seen) than start here.

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