Peter St. Onge

Are we getting better at ‘sorry’?

Roger Goodell did a very good job at being very sorry this week.

The NFL commissioner apologized Thursday for his weak response to a domestic violence incident involving Baltimore running back Ray Rice. It was a rare apology for the NFL. It also was an uncommonly good one – a candid accounting of how he messed up. No excuses. Just regret.

As all of us know, this should be an easy thing to do, but isn’t. And Goodell isn’t the only one lately to do it well. Earlier this month, after waving his middle finger at the opposing sidelines, rookie Cleveland quarterback Johnny Manziel didn’t try to scramble away from his mistake. “I should have been smarter,” he said.

There are others, too – big and small admissions of mistakes by public officials and corporations. Not the blameshifting “Sorry if someone misinterpreted my remarks” or its first cousin: “I apologize if anyone was offended.” Just simple deep-breath-and-exhale apologies. My bads.

Is something happening here? Are we getting better at saying we’re sorry?

If so, there’s a place at least some of the credit should go: Twitter.

OK, yes. We know Twitter has its flaws. But for all of them – for all of the snarkiness and superficiality and downright meanness (especially toward women) – Twitter can bring forth a startling force and depth of public opinion.

That’s not always good. By its nature, Twitter takes the knee-jerk reactions you and I have and multiplies that by a zillion. But Twitter can bring legitimate outrage, too, and it has a terrific radar for insincerity. Offer the lame apology, the weak justification, and Twitter will wag its finger and say “Try again.”

That’s what happened with Goodell, who was initially unmoved at the reaction to his two-game suspension for Rice. Days later, Goodell insisted that the punishment was fair, that Rice had “taken responsibility” for knocking his girlfriend out in a hotel elevator.

A decade ago, that probably would’ve been enough. The suspension would’ve been met with outrage, yes, but it would have been mostly media and a handful of women’s organizations. This time, the NFL also faced a digital blitz of everyday women, smart women, hurt women, angry women. Those women explained in personal and thoughtful ways – on Twitter and on Facebook – how wrong Goodell was.

It didn’t help the commissioner that each time an NFL player was suspended after Rice, Twitter pounced by comparing the four games or more that player got for substance abuse against Rice’s wrist slap for a knockout punch. There’s nothing worse for public relations than when you’re on the wrong side of a meme.

The result, finally, was a mea culpa, plus more. The NFL will now suspend players six games for a domestic violence offense, with perhaps a lifetime ban for another. Said Goodell, simply: “I didn’t get it right.” Good.

This is not to say there won’t still be plenty of bad apologies. Politicians, for one, will always struggle with the sorrys, because saying so is giving in to your enemies. (And because unlike most public figures and marketers, politicians only really care about 50.1 percent of people liking them.)

Also, mind you, no one is suggesting that people are better at being sorry. Twitter has merely changed the calculation of what it takes to get others off your back. If that happens to involve a bit more self-reflection, that’s a bonus.

So good for social media, which doesn’t usually bring out our best. By the way, I looked on Twitter late Thursday to see the reaction to Goodell’s apology. Could hardly find a mention. Everyone was too busy blowing up over President Obama’s tan suit.