It’s too late to apologize

Peter Jackson
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There’s a scene in the 1975 film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” that comes to mind when I think of public apologies.

It’s that moment when John Cleese, as Sir Lancelot, storms a castle to save a damsel in distress. Making his way through a wedding party to get to the tower, Lancelot ends up, well, lancing a lot of innocent people with his sword.

Turns out the damsel was really a dude, and after much confusion, the father brings the famous knight back downstairs to smooth things out with the crowd.

“There he is!” someone yells, and the crowd lunges towards them. Lancelot resumes his carnage.

“Hold it, hold it! Please!” shouts the father.

“Sorry, sorry,” says Lancelot as he backs off. “See what I mean, I just get carried away. … Sorry, everyone.”

“He’s killed the best man,” someone yells, and the crowd grows angry again.

“Please, please!” pleads the patriarch. “This is supposed to be a happy occasion! Let’s not bicker and argue about who killed who.”

Apologies come in many forms. Lately, though, they don’t seem to have much to do with real remorse.

There are the long overdue apologies, where governments and institutions play proxy for people and policies long since passed into the annals of history. Such are the apologies to First Nations people and Japanese Canadians.

It’s one thing to make suitable amends for past injustice, but I’ve never understood why the government, supposedly on behalf of “the rest of us,” should extend a mea culpa for actions of a bygone era. Many of us only have to go back a couple of generations to find ancestors who were wronged by the powers that be. Thankfully, we’ve moved on.

Then there’s the celebrity apology.

Lance Armstrong is no Lancelot. He hasn’t killed anyone or seriously ruined anyone’s life but his own.

So, it’s hard to know whether his public apology during an Oprah Winfrey taping Monday — which has yet to be aired — will gain any traction. (He may, in fact, simply have confessed without apologizing publicly.)

Armstrong has steadfastly denied charges he used performance-enhancing drugs during his reign as world cycling champion. Even as fellow teammates fell on their swords, and other witnesses came forward, Armstrong has walled himself up like a fortress, even resorting to the courts in an attempt to silence his detractors.

There’s no hard and fast rule that says when someone has to finally fess up for past sins. But conventional wisdom suggests Lance Armstrong’s apology is long past its expiry date.

It’s been crystal clear for years that he lied about doping, despite his success in litigating against accusers. He was stripped of his Tour de France titles last year and has lost most of his endorsements.

He was also forced to step down from his successful cancer charity, Livestrong, after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency issued a report that put him at the helm of a long-running doping scheme.

There were several opportunities, long before it had come to all this, for Armstrong to salvage at least a shred of his reputation with a heartfelt admission of guilt. But he stood tough, angrily and arrogantly, as his world crumbled around him.

There are no words or tears or woeful expressions that could ever save him now.

Apologies can be empty, or strained, or simply strategic. Contrition is a veritable industry in itself these days, as politicians, athletes, singers and actors parade in front of microphones to vent their sins. It’s easy to be cynical about motive, but there is such a thing as a true apology. It must be genuine, it should come with consequences, and it should be timely.

For Armstrong, the race is over and the crowd has gone home. Millions may watch his moment of candour on Oprah’s show Thursday. But few will be in a forgiving mood.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor. Email

See a slideshow of Armstrong's career - and one of other "disgraced" athletes - right here.

Organizations: First Nations, U.S. Anti-Doping Agency

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Recent comments

  • Herb Morrison
    January 16, 2013 - 15:36

    An apology unaccompanied by anything remotely resembling repentance (a desire to turn change ones' way) is worthless. Apologies tend to flow easily from the lips especially when the person offering the apology is facec with irrefutable of their guiilt. Repentance comes from the heart, and is much more difficult to practice since it requires that a person change from within, and demonstrate that a change has taken place by the manner in which they live their lives. It is unfortunatethat more people living in our society don't seem to know the difference between the two, and don't realize that you can't offer a genuine apology unless it is accompanied by genuine repentance (desire to change) on the part of the person offering the apology. You can't have one without the other.

  • Winston Adams
    January 16, 2013 - 12:57

    As I read your piece, i thought you were going to end up making an apology for your last two pieces written about the Idle No More Movement. It seems certain once you referenced the First Nations. but then you put the apology by government in the same category of the apology to the Japanese. Now the injustices against the First Nations started 5 centuries ago. And when did they stop? Are they not continuing under the Indian Act , and other avenues? The Japanese were interned in WW2. Ann injustice indeed , but pales againt the lenght and extent of injustices against aboriginals. And the First Nations were the the original owners of all Canada. I read then now control one half of one present of land south of the 60 latitude!. And you say we have moved on despite our immediate ancestors having been wronged by the powers that be. Tell that to Dunderdale and her attitude towards Quebec . You imply there has been suitable amends for injustices against First Nation peoples? Or that apologies need to come with consequences and be timely? The confuse the real injustices against First Nations with the trivial, as to Lance Armstrong.And I was wrong to think you views about first nations have changed. No apalogy from you on that, which leaves you in suspect of being A UGLY CANADIAN. So you must be content that the apology from Harper to the First Nations was sincere, has had suitable consequences, and was timely. Timely like the Pope's apology to Galeleo! Keep it up Peter. You dig your hole deeper each time. Why don't you start by listing all the injustices and attrocities against First Nations peoples. Off the top , I beleive in the 1500s the Portugese captured indians here in Nfld and took them back as slaves. None were returned as far as I know. And then it shifts to the British. And remember when Ed Roberts planned to call in the army to quell the discontent at Davis Inlet? Not to suggest that was the last injustice. How many hundreds occured between those events? Injustice has been continuous, in my opinion, with a few exceptions. Maybe history was not your strong point? Journalism takes research, I assume. Do you consider yourself a journaist, or just a writer? You seem more knowledgeable about fiction, very specific on Lancelot.

  • Doug Smith
    January 16, 2013 - 11:29

    Mr. Jackson, you are doing the readership a great disservice by claiming that some public figures who issue apologies for transgressions they have committed may be truly sorry for their dishonourable acts. Only the naïve and those uneducated in worldly affairs would believe such fallacies. By you stating such apologies can be legitimate only perpetuates the myth for the weak minded. Instead you as a journalist should point out how these so-called apologies are self serving for the apologist. Doug Smith, GFW

  • david
    January 16, 2013 - 08:06

    There are far too many, much better journalists tackling this story to even imagine that this piece would add an single thing or new angle to the story. On the other hand, so many, more relevant issues to Telegram readers go unpursued or under-investigated.