As interesting as celebrity scandals are, celebrity mea culpas are close behind. After Patrick Kennedy, Mel Gibson, Mark Foley and Ted Haggard ran off to rehab as part of their public repentance (and I'm sure at least two of them legitimately needed it), some began to wonder if we'd ever see an apology not tied to a substance abuse claim. Last week's apology from athlete Marion Jones seemed different -- maybe because she was apologizing for, in part, abusing a substance. After pleading guilty to two counts of lying to federal investigators and admitting in a packed U.S. District courtroom that she took steroids, she issued a statement. Here's how The Sydney Morning Herald reported it -- with the fantastic headline "Turned out, she had feet of clay":
Track queen Marion Jones wept as she begged for forgiveness from her family, her fans and her country after admitting to being a drug cheat.
The sprint star who swept all before her at the 2000 Sydney Olympics pleaded guilty in a US court to lying to Government investigators when she denied using performance-enhancing drugs.
"I have asked Almighty God for forgiveness ... because of my actions, I am retiring from the sport of track and field, a sport that I deeply love," she said.
In a tearful statement on the steps of the federal courthouse in White Plains, New York, Jones said: "Making these false statements to federal agents was an incredibly stupid thing for me to do, and I am responsible fully for my actions. I have no one to blame but myself for what I've done.
In addition to noting her request for God's forgiveness, Jones also asked for the public's forgiveness:
I recognize that by saying that I'm deeply sorry, it might not be enough and sufficient to address the pain and the hurt that I have caused you. Therefore, I want to ask for your forgiveness for my actions, and I hope that you can find it in your heart to forgive me.
I was curious to see how the media treated her apology. Since it's a sports story that means we have to look to the sports pages, where opinion mixes freely with the news. Mark Zeigler of The San Diego Union-Tribune was cynical:
Understand one thing, though: This was a plea agreement in federal court, not an admission of guilt born from a heavy conscience or some sort of cathartic personal cleansing. . . .
Jones showed up in White Plains yesterday because she had to, not because she necessarily wanted to. Sooner or later you realize the fish aren't biting and it's time to cut bait. Yesterday was merely the act of Jones snipping the line.
Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins had more compassion for the disgraced athlete:
You're welcome to whatever judgment you have of Marion Jones, whatever recriminations you want to heap on her for using a steroid, and lying to the prosecutors. But anyone who sat in the U.S. District courtroom as she directed her clear, firm plea of guilty to Judge Kenneth M. Karas, and then watched her deliver that shattered emotional apology, her voice cracking on words like "deeply ashamed" and "disastrous," in front of the cream pillars of the courthouse, was hard pressed to wish much punishment on her.
It seems to me that asking for forgiveness from God or our neighbor -- or forgiving others -- is something that many religious adherents do regularly. The first of Luther's 95 Theses was "When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said 'Repent', He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance." The Lord's Prayer -- prayed by some 2 billion people worldwide -- mentions a little something about repentance and forgiveness. Indeed, repentance is regularly discussed throughout Christendom.
How much more central to the life of an average Christian is this regular posture of repentance than, say, electoral politics? And yet which one gets more so-called religion coverage in America today? Sometimes it seems as if the only story angle reporters have for Christians and sin is the hypocrisy angle. It might be good for some enterprising reporter to use a public apology such as Jones' as a hook to discuss the complex and vital topic of sin, repentance and forgiveness.