Rosenblum: Good TV drama is one thing; apology is quite another

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 16, 2013 - 6:54 PM
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Oprah Winfrey interviewed disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong on Monday during taping for the show that airs Thursday and Friday.

Photo: George Burns, Harpo Studios Inc. via Associated Press

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It sounds like cyclist Lance Armstrong finally bared his soul to Oprah in an interview to be broadcast Thursday, admitting to America's Mother Confessor that he did, in fact, use performance-enhancing drugs to win races. This, despite vehemently denying the charges for years.

It's a good start. Far more important is whether Armstrong, Tour de France champion, cancer survivor and the hero of so many children, will do something even braver:

Apologize publicly and well.

Oprah and her OWN Network have been cheekily leaking tidbits to the media from her marathon interview with Armstrong, which will air in two segments. It likely will become the ratings bonanza she's hungry for.

It's up to us, she said, to decide whether Armstrong is sufficiently contrite. Much of my takeaway hinges not on the confession, but on the apology I hope he issues -- and I hope it's in better form than the apology he apparently gave to his Livestrong staff earlier this week.

"I'm sorry," an emotional Armstrong said Monday to about 100 staff members of the charity he founded in 1997. Um, sorry for? For being stripped of seven Tour de France titles? For lost endorsements worth gazillions?

It's hard not to be cynical about this whole deal after he vehemently denied the doping charges for years and bullied his critics.

"He didn't just allegedly dope," said Lauren Bloom, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney and author of "The Art of the Apology."

"He vigorously denied it and made it a living hell for anyone who challenged him. I'm sure those people are feeling very vindicated."

Plus, he sure waited a long time for this potential accounting. Is there a statute of limitations on sorry?

"The longer you wait, the harder it gets," said Bloom, who has analyzed apologies ranging from Tiger Woods to Hugh Grant to David Letterman.

"You need a little time to get your head together, because a big apology takes planning and this is a huge apology. But, if you wait long enough, the more people start questioning your motives. It's going to be that much harder."

That's likely why so many people are riveted by Armstrong's dramatic about-face and what, exactly, he will and will not say Thursday night.

"I am curious about why we're all so curious," said Carol Bruess, a professor specializing in family and relationship communication at the University of St. Thomas.

"Why do we have an appetite for the weakness of others? The quick answer is that, as social beings, we are always comparing ourselves to those around us, constantly monitoring our own moral compass.

"We enjoy the drama, the tragedy, when it doesn't affect us personally," she said. "We might have been emotionally engaged in his tours, his fight with cancer, but he's not our spouse."

That may make us more forgiving. Look no further than Bill Clinton, who received a robust standing ovation at last week's Golden Globe awards.

But we have our standards, by golly. If you're going to apologize, do it right.

Bloom believes that there are six elements to a good apology. Consider this your checklist, should you sit down to watch the Oprah interview.

First, does Armstrong say he's sorry in a way that makes us really believe him? Is he sincere or is this more of a "I regret any inconvenience my egregious behavior may have caused you" apology?

Second, does he take responsibility for what he did? Hint for Armstrong: Don't blame anybody else for your decision to dope. No matter how you feel about John Edwards, he's a good example here. Pointing to the culprit in his infidelity scandal as his wife, Elizabeth, battled cancer, he said, "I don't have to go any further than the mirror. It is me and me alone."

Third, does he offer to make amends? Bloom points to Michael Vick, who has teamed up with the Animal Humane Society to talk to school kids about why dog fighting is a terrible idea. Armstrong might begin to rebuild his fan base, for example, by talking to young athletes about the dangers of doping.

Fourth, is he willing to listen to those he has hurt about why they're upset and acknowledge their legitimate right to be upset? (Livestrong staff: Let us know about this one).

Fifth, does he express appreciation to those who are important to him, including his staff, teammates and legions of former and diehard fans? Can he say, "I'm sorry to have disappointed so many people because I care about you and your support"?

Finally, will he stay clean? We're unlikely to entertain any more apologies from Armstrong. This is it. Do it well.

"This one is particularly sad," Bloom said. "Was there ever an athlete who fed our belief that it was possible to be superhuman? I hope the interview goes better than I think it did.

"I want my heroes, too." gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350

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