December 16, 2007

Contrition, conditionally speaking

After his name turned up in the Mitchell Report on the use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, New York Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte issued the sort of non-apology apology we've come to expect from baseball stars, from Pete Rose to Ozzie Guillen. Pettitte, who admitted to using human growth hormone (HGH) on two occasions in 2002 to help him recover from an elbow injury, couched his statement in conditionals and other hedge words:

If what I did was an error in judgment on my part, I apologize. ...
If I have let down people that care about me, I am sorry, but I hope that you will listen to me carefully and understand that two days of perhaps bad judgment should not ruin a lifetime of hard work and dedication.

Pettitte won't actually admit that his HGH use was indeed "an error in judgment," but if it happens to have been, he apologizes. He chooses only to own up to "two days of perhaps bad judgment." Pettitte's ambivalence about the quality of his judgment appears to be based on the fact that HGH is not an anabolic steroid for building muscle mass of the type that others such as his teammate Roger Clemens have been accused of using: "I wasn't looking for an edge; I was looking to heal," he says later in the statement. And he is also seeking legal cover in the fact HGH wasn't declared a banned substance in baseball until 2005. (Of course, Pettitte might still very well have committed an illegal act by purchasing or using HGH without a prescription.)

Pettitte's second conditional apology expresses contrition "if I have let down people that care about me." That's even more indirect that Pete Rose's grudging acknowledgment about his gambling problem: "I'm sorry for all the people, fans and family it hurt." Pettitte merely suggests that people who care about him might have been let down, but if they would listen to him carefully (or rather, listen to his statement released through his attorney), they wouldn't be let down at all.

Pettitte's half-hearted words haven't impressed many commentators in the New York area. "A sorry excuse," says Dan Graziano of the Newark Star-Ledger. "Crocodile tears and contrived 'regret,'" says Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News. I suspect that sportswriters, more than anyone, have a fine-tuned ear for non-apology apologies, conditioned to hear the artifice of conditionals.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at December 16, 2007 10:51 AM