Towards the end of January, Thomas Partey apologized to Arsenal fans for the red card he received in the match against Liverpool in the second leg of their Carabao Cup semifinal. With Arsenal already down 2-0, Partey was brought on with 15 minutes left. He then proceeded to be yellow-carded twice within three minutes, the second yellow for a studs-up challenge on Fabinho.
Partey’s disaster cameo was as funny and ridiculous to neutrals as it was painful for Arsenal fans. In the grand scheme of things, there was little he could do to impact the result; Arsenal were down and being outplayed, and as much as we champion individual power, it was unrealistic to believe that one midfielder could change the fortunes of the club in the moment. Further in his defense, Mikel Arteta naming him to the bench on the same day that he landed from an international flight, after he had just competed in the Africa Cup of Nations for Ghana, was the unfortunate decision that set up the comedy.
After the match, Partey took to Instagram:
“Am responsible for anything that happened and will take all the critiques, I should get more intelligent not to get in a challenge already booked but this is my personality, I like to fight for every ball. I love this club and love my country even though things don’t happen how I wanted, I would continue to work harder and make things right. I came back with the mentality to make myself available for the team to get to the final but it did not happen as planned.
“I will continue to give my all when I am on the field of play, because this is my life and this is what I chose to do. Am not happy with all that happened yesterday at the AFCON, but I understand only with hard work things will continue to work hard to change this. Thanks.”
Players apologizing to the public, no matter how funny or small the incident was, is a performance that has become commonplace. There are numerous reasons why players decide to apologize publicly, ranging from on-field incidents like red cards, own goals or not doing enough for the team to win a match, to serious transgressions outside of the game. Partey apologizes for getting a red card. Jack Grealish apologizes for drunk driving. Kyle Walker apologizes for breaking coronavirus restrictions (and for reportedly hosting a party).
At least the latter is understandable. The apology is then an extension of the normal show of remorse before asking for forgiveness; it’s the asking (and hoping) for a lighter sentence depending on the severity of the offense. Such a show of remorse has to be performed at a higher level when the individual is considered a public figure and a role model. After all, many people already see footballers as rich, spoiled and irresponsible. The least they could do in those instances is pretend to regret their bad behavior.
The public needs to know and see the recognition that what they have done is wrong, whether they feel true remorse or not.
Players also make apologies that turn their private lives into public issues. Because they are public figures, with rumors often swirling about them, it doesn’t take long for misbehavior to become the stuff of tabloids. In 2019, Anthony Martial apologized to his fiancée, and the world, for cheating on her, using the phrase “for the evil I have been able to do during the last few months.” A few years earlier, Olivier Giroud apologized to his wife, Arsenal fans and the Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, for allegedly having an affair. Mauro Icardi would need a dedicated book for the public nature of his private life with Wanda Nara and the many public apologies and retractions that have come from both sides.
Outside of a few special cases involving off-field infractions, there’s no reason why players should be apologizing to the public. Yet it’s become a culture in itself. It happens so often one has to wonder what is driving these public displays of contrition: what players are trying to achieve from them, and is it a public relations exercise or a consequence of players being more exposed to abuse?
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The most abundant apologies these days happen because a player has done something wrong on the field or feels as if they have let down their fans or the team. Partey apologies for the red card. Bruno Fernandes apologizes for missing a penalty. Marcus Rashford apologizes for his penalty miss at the Euros.
In the most sympathetic light, these public apologies for on-field incidents seem to stem from players being on social media. With massive followings across multiple platforms, they can speak for themselves directly to the public. And so, they’ve decided to share their feelings of disappointment in themselves and their performances with the world.
It’s not hard to imagine that players have always had these kinds of emotions about failure and letting their fans, teams and themselves down, but before the domination of social media they usually had to apologize only to their team and manager, or keep those feelings to themselves. Now, in the same way that most people on social media overshare by virtue of just being online, players are also doing that by apologizing for things they often don’t need to.
The opposing, more cynical view is that the culture of public apology can be seen as what Gary Neville, a former Man United player turned pundit, diagnosed in relation to the Fernandes apology: A matter of crisis management. Neville tweeted in response to Fernandes’ apology: “The apology culture that’s engulfing football would be ok if it came from a genuine place. However more often than not it’s a smokescreen and diversion tactic designed to mask a crap performance by experts!! Lose a game = crisis comms meet! How do we spin this one our way?”
The subsequent apology, as genuine as it might be, has an air of protection for the individual. They are apologizing to win the crowd over. To cast themselves as a sympathetic figure. Not only to maintain whatever status they have, but because no one wants to become a pariah. A missed penalty shouldn’t account for much, but even someone like Lionel Messi, with all of his accomplishments, is still roundly mocked when he fails to score one.
Crisis management can be cynical, but it’s not divorced from the behavior of the people to whom the player is appealing. After all, one doesn’t try to win a crowd over unless the crowd is already hostile.
Maybe the line between the sympathetic and the cynical view can’t be drawn too clearly. The culture of public apology feels as if it’s emerged from both sides, and it’s more dynamic than the division would allow.
As good as it is that they can speak directly to fans, it does leave them vulnerable to mistreatment. As bizarre as players apologizing to fans for banal on-field incidents is, even more absurd is the level of cruelty players constantly receive for any action deemed negative. Players are exposed to a level of heightened disdain and judgment these days that those in the past couldn’t even fathom; it’s often overwhelming to see their mentions during and after matches.
There have been calls from players themselves — and from footballing bodies, clubs and watchdog groups — to social media platforms to do something to stem that flood of hate and judgment that players deal with on a daily basis. But the unfortunate truth seems to be that no amount of tinkering can really change the condition of those platforms being driven by engagement. The overwhelming level of negative messages is a symptom of how online life is supposed to work.
Public apologies are also crisis management. That’s fairly obvious: a player plays badly and doesn’t want the fans to be mad at them, so they release an apology to show their disappointment and reinforces their passion for, and commitment to, the club. It appeals to the hearts of the fans through a public show of character, which also guards the player against future heavy criticism of bad play. When people like a player, they tend to not be as harsh or to give them the benefit of the doubt.
The culture of public apologies is absurd, but it is as absurd as the online life is in general. On social media, an individual exists in a public sphere in which any interaction or expression can quickly become the one incident for which their entire being is condemned. Everything is being judged all the time; a person only has to slip up once.
Players are already seen historically as belonging to the public. They are paid lots of money and make that living through playing a children’s game, with so much of their public existence and the love that they receive from that public conditioned by what they can produce. Many fans tend to see players as products that should do nothing else but dedicate their lives to the sport and be quiet while doing so.
In Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, there’s a great exchange between two of the characters:
ESTRAGON: They talk about their lives.
VLADIMIR: To have lived is not enough for them.
ESTRAGON: They have to talk about it.
VLADIMIR: To be dead is not enough for them.
In the social media age for players, such an exchange can be viewed as a diagnosis of what causes their strange public expressions of regret and disappointment: They make public apologies. To be sorry is not enough for them. They must talk about it. To be better is not enough for them. The “them” in the first and third lines are the players who employ the statements both as genuine sentiment and as a shield, because of how exposed and calculating they and their PR teams are. The “them” in the second and fourth line refers to the public that detests those apologies and finds them ridiculous, yet through their often overwhelming abuse of players for a range of failures, makes an explicit demand for the performance.
This tension heightens any absurd performances that come by being a public figure, and as a consequence, we now have routine apologies about penalty misses and red cards.
Even someone like Sergio Aguero, one of the greatest strikers in Premier League history, still felt the need to apologize for missing a penalty in a game that did nothing to derail their fifth Premier League title of the past decade. He had nothing to be sorry for, yet he still felt that need to apologize.