Not everyone knows how to repent.And athletes have proven to be exceptionally bad at expressing contrition. They can barely say the words "I'm sorry," much less mean them. Michael Vick's apology this week for giving Atlanta fans the middle finger further crystallized just how bad athletes are at mea culpas. If Vick were really sorry for flipping the bird after the Falcons' frustrating loss to the Saints on Sunday, his first apology wouldn't have come on a piece of paper. What a lovely way to express sorrow to a blindly supportive fan base that has done a pretty good job of overlooking the fact Vick is still more about potential than production after six years in the NFL. Apologies from athletes just don't mean what they once did. When the stakes were lower, their sense of regret was more heartfelt. But since America is such a forgiving nation, apologies have become as valuable as "Gigli" DVDs. True repentance, in case you forgot, means you wouldn't do it again if you had the opportunity. And in most cases, athletes are unable to make that promise because they benefit too much from their wrongdoing.
Pete Rose didn't apologize until it was directly linked to book sales. T.O. didn't say he was sorry until it was linked to his paycheck. Husbands don't apologize to wives unless it's linked to well, let's not go there.After witnessing so many bad apologies from athletes, I've come to understand it's an art form that requires arrogance, stupidity and varying degrees of insincerity. Jason Giambi gave us the legal apology penitence that doesn't void a contract. Give his lawyer and public-relations handler gold stars. The tearful, press conference apology with wife and kids in tow has been utilized by everyone from Kobe Bryant to Darryl Strawberry to Larry Eustachy. This is a classic the Motown of apologies, if you will. Ryan Leaf gave us the "Mission: Impossible" apology after he got into a shouting match with a San Diego reporter. He read from a prepared statement, crumpled it up and threw it in his locker as if his message would self-destruct in 10 seconds. From Ozzie Guillen, we got the it's-not-my-fault-this-gay-slur-has-different-translations apology. According to Ozzie, the well-known gay slur he used to describe Chicago Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti means lack of courage in Venezuela. That's not what my Spanish book says, but we'll take Ozzie's word for it. "I apologize, but I wasn't talking about those people," Guillen said. And we know nothing says "I'm sorry" better than "those people." Along those same lines, who can forget Matt Millen's non-apology apology for calling wide receiver Johnnie Morton the same gay slur. Millen said: "I apologize if I offended anyone." Only millions of people, Matt, but who's counting. From John Rocker, we learned that racism and intolerance become much more forgivable when you trot out your minority friends like they're spices in your cabinet. After Rocker offended single mothers, gays and New Yorkers in a 1999 Sports Illustrated article, Rocker explained, "My closest friend is a first-generation Lebanese with his grandfather coming through Ellis Island no more than 60 years ago. As you can see, my actions do not support this racist label." Randy Moss, though, is in the Hall of Fame of bad sports apologists. After he was fined $10,000 for mock mooning Packers fans at Lambeau Field, Moss was questioned by a TV crew about the fine. His replies were legendary. Asked if he was going to write a check, Moss said, "When you're rich, you don't write checks!" Then he was asked how he was going to pay the fine, and Moss said these unforgettable words: "Straight cash, homey. What's 10 grand to me? Next time, I might just shake my [male reproductive organ] at them!" As if anything else could convey true regret. These are all apologies that would make Michael Richards proud. His apology on the "Late Show with David Letterman" for his racist tirade at a Los Angeles comedy club was the worst in the history of humans. Somehow, Richards managed to use the term "Afro-Americans" and slide in a left-field reference to Hurricane Katrina victims. Although I'm sure when Mark Fuhrman saw Richards belittling his hecklers with the n-word, his heart warmed. But more than anything, the most important thing for athletes to remember when saying sorry is this: No apology at all is better than a fake one. Jemele Hill is a columnist for Page 2 and writer for ESPN the Magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.