So we went from a sorry situation, Odell Beckham Jr.’s reckless and vicious comportment during the Giants-Carolina Panthers game, to Beckham’s issued apology—which isn’t the same as saying he regretted trying to take off an opponent’s head.
In fact Beckham, glorified for the neither moral nor immoral ability to catch footballs with one hand, didn’t come out with his apology until his one-game suspension (which he had appealed) was upheld. And even then, his expression of remorse was offered to his teammates, the Giants organization and fans. With no mention of either the Panthers or defensive back Josh Norman, whom Beckham very well could have rendered a paraplegic by launching himself—helmet-first and full-speed—at Norman’s head.
Perhaps Beckham’s “apology” fit the rarely employed definition: A justification of his actions rather than an expression of penitence—the old Plato Apology of Socrates defending himself in 399 B.C. against charges of “corrupting the young.” The 23-year-old Beckham did go on about how “a lot of kids look up to me as a role model” and how that “is a responsibility I accept and take seriously.”
Certainly, Giants coach Tom Coughlin and some Beckham teammates did the Platonic thing in countenancing Beckham’s relentlessly nasty play by maintaining that the Panthers had heaped contumely upon him. “He was provoked,” Coughlin said.
The coach cited reports that a member of the Panthers, during pre-game warmups, had threatened Beckham while holding a baseball bat, and painted Beckham as something of a victim because Norman also violated the no-roughing rules. (Norman was fined but not suspended.)
But the NFL dismissed, for lack of evidence, suggestions that Beckham was the target of opponents’ homophobic slurs. (As if that were license to attempt inflicting serious physical harm.) Just as easy to disregard was Beckham’s post-game excuse that his actions merely were a function of manly competitiveness—the last resort of cheap-shot scoundrels.
So, unable to talk his way out of the suspension, Beckham released his written apology in which his (or his consultant’s) eloquent wording acknowledged that he had “dropped the ball on sportsmanship.” More than one commentator called that a “perfect apology.” But people who study these things have noted how they too often are “part of the ritual,” as author Paul Slansky put it, allowing offenders to “just move on.”
Slansky, who co-authored the 2006 book, “My Bad: 26 Years of Public Apologies and the Appalling Behavior That Inspired Them,” once told me he considered the public mea culpa “rarely sincere because it’s obligatory. It’s meaningless. [A person] apologized; how easy is that? You have to prove you mean it. Otherwise, it’s just all p.r.”
It is to Beckham’s benefit that there is a willingness in the sport’s culture to quickly leave unpleasantries behind. “Football fans—and the football media—have zero long-term memory,” DJ Gallo wrote in The Guardian. “Our brains function like we’ve taken years of spearings from Odell Beckham.” Outrage over some player’s misdeeds regularly is replaced by hearty cheers as soon as he resumes excelling for the home team.
At this point, Beckham must be given the benefit of the doubt. University of Massachusetts psychiatry professor Aaron Lazare, who spent 12 years researching his book, “On Apology,” has allowed that “people do apologize for genuinely humanist reasons.” But other times, he said, “they do it to get off the hook.”
Maybe this is a case of a real apology, with the ability to remove a desire for revenge, to encourage forgiveness, to relieve guilt. Coughlin insisted that Beckham “felt bad” about the whole thing. Or maybe it’s just Beckham bunkum. We’ll see.