Mickelson, Howard, Zverev and a week of sorry sports apologies

The men asked for forgiveness, issuing the kind of apologies in sports that read as if a crisis manager had first and final editing approval. They pleaded for mercy and understanding to their friends, family and especially the thing most valuable to them: the ticket-buying and popularity-generating community of fans. All three vowed to be better men.

Maybe they mean it. This is not to arbitrate the authenticity of their apologies, as if repentance somehow can be weighed on a scale and judged by other fallible human beings. Instead, it’s the timing that causes their regrets to ring hollow.

Mickelson acted in self-interest and elevated the pursuit of millions over any morals while pitting the Saudi Arabia-backed Super Golf League against the PGA Tour. He may have legitimate beef with the establishment of professional golf, which needed to catch up in compensating its players. However, Mickelson built his mutiny on the blood money with the new tour being bankrolled by the Saudis.

In a conversation last November with author Alan Shipnuck, he acknowledged the “scary motherf——” involved in the brutal regime. Of course, ya know, women’s and LGBTQ rights are nonexistent there. And yeah, sure, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Other than that, Mickelson reasoned, this will be great for golf!

“As nice a guy as [PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan] comes across as, unless you have leverage, he won’t do what’s right. And the Saudi money has finally given us that leverage,” Mickelson told Shipnuck, probably while lounging somewhere on his perch of privilege.

The reaction from the golf and corporate world was swift. Rory McIlroy never raised his voice, but his words bruised with the impact of a wrecking ball, calling Mickelson’s comments “naive, selfish, egotistical, ignorant.” Sponsors KPMG and Amstel Light beer flattened Mickelson even more by ending their relationship with the reigning PGA champ. Callaway then announced it was pausing its relationship with him over a “choice of words” it condemned. In response, Mickelson did what anyone else in his position would do: He posted six sorry paragraphs that blamed the journalist, made himself out to be a martyr and attempted to clean up the mess he made with the SGL and anybody else still willing to fatten his pockets.

Howard was more succinct. He needed only 122 words to ask for his pardon — and all it took was just one whole day to come to this understanding.

“After taking time to reflect on all that happened, I realize how unacceptable both my actions and words were, and how they affected so many. I am truly sorry,” Howard said in a statement.

‘Sorry’ was a word missing from Howard’s vocabulary in his postgame comments following the Feb. 20 incident. Howard, instead, said he felt aggrieved by a late timeout called by Wisconsin Coach Greg Gard, then further triggered when Gard placed his hand on Howard’s arm as the two were talking. After the altercation, though he had time to cool down before meeting with reporters, Howard didn’t apologize for introducing Wisconsin assistant coach Joe Krabbenhoft’s face to his fab five. Instead, he blamed the timeout and the physically unimposing Gard, who had the audacity to touch him in a handshake line. Because of this, Howard said, he felt the need to protect himself.

Howard leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms, striking a pose of defiance after sharing his side of the story — a version that clearly didn’t line up with video of the incident. But after a day of reflection — oh, and a five-game suspension and $40,000 fine handed down by the Big Ten — he made a more submissive gesture by saying how he was “truly sorry.”

Sports figures filled with regret always tend to find their way through reflection. The image it conjures is that they’ve spent hours staring in the mirror asking existential questions and making affirmations. We are to believe that Zverev has now taken this same journey to reflection after he cursed out an umpire at the Mexican Open, then whacked his chair several times following a doubles loss.

“I am going to take the coming days to reflect — on my actions and how I can ensure that it will not happen again. I am sorry for letting you down,” Zverev wrote on Instagram after the ATP expelled him from the event and fined him $40,000. Zverev will also forfeit $30,000 in prize money.

The verbal and physical outbursts by these three men should not have been all that shocking. Mickelson has taken part in the Saudi International, the only professional men’s golf tournament held in the country. Howard had to be held back from going after former Maryland coach Mark Turgeon last year in the Big Ten tournament. And great tennis players have a long history of acting like preschoolers in need of a nap, so Zverev was only indulging in that behavior. Since last fall, the ATP has been investigating allegations of domestic abuse against Zverev made by his ex-girlfriend. Zverev has denied the allegations.

But when this sorry bunch acted out before, they didn’t apologize. They didn’t need to, because previously no one had punished their actions and forced them to face hard consequences. This time, their regret only followed rebuke. Humbled by extreme backlash and facing monetary losses, this trio of toxicity issued their mea culpas only after there were no other words — or open right palms or rackets — to express themselves.


Christin Hakim

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