06/04/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Mired In Mea Culpas

Mired In Mea Culpas: If love means never having to say you're sorry, does apologizing now mean you never have to accept responsibility?

We are awash in apologies.

But are any of them meaningful?

Since President Obama's inaugural call for "a new era of responsibility," and his subsequent, frank admission-- "I screwed up"--about the vetting of a Cabinet appointee,
the market in mea culpas has risen as steadily as the Dow has dropped.

One by one, people have been supposedly sorry for brazen bonuses, Ponzi ploys, steroid secrets, bloodying their girlfriends, and other assorted blunders of judgment, some even boldly echoing the President's words.

"I screwed up, big-time," declared baseball icon Alex Rodriguez at a press conference where he discussed his past use of a banned steroid. Asked if he thought he had cheated, Rodriguez replied, "That's not for me to determine." He didn't think the drugs he injected for three years were steroids, he said, then added, "I knew we weren't taking Tic Tacs."

The audacity of dope.

Sports writers scoffed at A-Rod's A-Pology, declaring it more strategy than sincerity. PR and leadership experts saw it as the empty new fashion of confession.

"It was lacking in authenticity," said one. "Like most apologies in the public sector, there was no mention of amends, and an apology without amends is just public relations."

The apology plague has spread beyond borders, catching the attention of the Singapore newspaper The Straits Times, which recently rated the sincerity of some well-known apologists on a scale of 1-5. Olympian Michael Phelps' mea culpa for bad bong behavior--"I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way"--was awarded a 3.5 for showing he's "man enough at 23 to take responsibility for his mistakes," according to the newspaper.

Singer Chris Brown scored an anemic 1 for his formulaic written statement--"Words cannot begin to express how sorry and saddened I am..."--after charges of assaulting his pop star girlfriend Rihanna. "We're not impressed," hissed the Straits Times.

Wall Street bankers were smacked down by the newspaper as well, earning a measly 2. Morgan Stanley chief executive John Mack's insistence that he was "especially sorry what's happened to shareholders" and was "taking responsibility" prompted this reaction from the newspaper: "Three words: Return your bonuses."

Washington was harsher than Singapore. Outraged that some bailed out bosses were taking $165 million in taxpayer-sponsored bonuses, Republican Senator Charles Grassley recently suggested that the executives "follow the Japanese example and come before the American people and take that deep bow and say, 'I'm sorry,' and then either do one of two things: resign or go commit suicide." A spokesman later said Grassley was only "speaking rhetorically" about suicide.

In Ontario, Canada last month, legislators passed a new "Apology Act" law making it easier for people to say "I'm sorry" without fear of having their words used against them in court. The law isn't a shield for criminal liability--murderous mea culprits would get no protection--but it could pave the way for doctors, for example, to act more compassionately by apologizing for mistakes in care, now that the legal threat has been removed.

But an editorial in the Canadian National Post questioned whether the Apology Act would promote "insincere, effectively meaningless" apologies from people who truly did wrong. "There will certainly be some apologies," the editorial stated, "designed to mislead or to create spin in the public mind."

Which brings us back to A-Rod. In an interview with the YES Network after his less-than candid press conference about steroid use, the Yankee third baseman threw in the towel about the public's perception of him, post-apology. "I feel like right now that not too many people like me, so I've given up on that," A-Rod said. "I'm not very good with words," he continued, "but no matter what I sit here and tell you today, it's not going to express how truly sorry I feel for what I have done."

No word yet on how the Singapore Straits Times would rate this latest apology.