I Will Not Rest Until I Have Your Empty Apology

On Monday, Clayton Oliver issued a statement. It’s an apology, the second in as many weeks for the Melbourne Football Club. No one believes that he is sorry. Granted, no one believes that he needs to apologise either, but we all accept that this needs to happen.

The week before, Melbourne teammate Tom Bugg punched Sydney’s Callum Mills out of the game. At the final siren, in front of opposing players (and the viewing public), Bugg approached Mills to issue an apology. It was lauded as a mature response to an immature act. The apology and the punch were mere hours apart. “I saw the footage and it does look really bad. I’m a bit embarrassed, my genuine intent – it looks really bad – but it wasn’t to hurt Callum,” Bugg told broadcaster Channel 7.

Oliver’s incident is less charged. Players interacting with fans along the boundary is common. (Reacting to an individual supporter less so, but not unheard of.) During the Carlton-Melbourne clash on Sunday, Oliver chased the ball past the boundary. There is abuse and ‘incidental contact’ from a Carlton fan. Things escalate. Oliver doesn’t like being touched. He allegedly threatens the fan. The fan reels back in disbelief.

The classic apology structure has three components: (1) acknowledge the error and its consequences, (2) take responsibility and (3) express remorse for having caused harm. There is no requirement for sincerity, but that’s not what this is. This is about damage control. Doctors are taught in medical school how to apologise. It is an important human gesture to someone who feels they have been wronged. There are other incentives: if not offered closure in the hospital, patients may want to achieve it in court. Despite fears to the contrary, studies show that an effective apology is a doctor’s best way out of litigation.

Oliver’s incident with the fan is no life-or-death situation, but attention to it has been significant. Reporting on the story has failed to examine the incentives of the two parties. Oliver’s intentions are clear. He has been called a diver, a soft player and a keyboard warrior in recent weeks. With this, the public will soon forget that he is in the midst of his breakout year. This is a request for silence.

But what motivates the fan, Rob Acquaro, to demand an apology from an incident he instigated? Does he want the last word in a very public spat? Does he not have to apologise as well?

Banter is part of the live experience of sport, a social contract between supporters and players. But clearly, there are limits to what is banter, and what is abuse. It is an echo of the much louder discussion that is playing out in society. We are completely oblivious to the power of words both spoken and written. We have no idea how far to pursue political incorrectness and free speech. Well, free speech and opinion are important. It is also important to be kind.

This could have been an opportunity to have a frank discussion about appropriate ways to engage with players. Clayton Oliver is famous, larger than life and earns multiple times the average. But Oliver is also nineteen years old, isolated and under unhealthy levels of scrutiny. Life is bigger and longer than football.

Instead, we have more words. Acquaro gets his apology, public and unequivocal. Oliver hopes to focus on football, riding out the turbulence on what could be a decorated footballing career. The public witnesses an apology that is not an apology at all, but a transaction.