Long before baseball, in the year 1077, Henry IV, king of Germany and emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, committed a famous act of self-flagellation by crawling through snow to the feet of Pope Gregory the Great.
It was a stunning demonstration of abjection. It was also unlikely to have struck anyone at the time as sincere -- least of all the pope and Henry himself.
"I doubt that anyone believed that the emperor was ... contrite," said Robert Neville, a professor of philosophy, religion and theology at Boston University.
But in debasing himself that day in Canossa, Henry got exactly what he wanted, Neville said. The pope reversed the king's excommunication, spared Henry his monarchy and, in the minds of onlookers, restored his chances for celestial reward.
The reward everyone knows baseball star Pete Rose covets is not in the heavens but Cooperstown, N.Y. Rose is under the belief that by finally admitting to what he has denied for 14 years, he has removed the biggest obstacle to his re-entry into baseball and his admission into its Hall of Fame.
Some have cast Rose's long overdue admission as an act of contrition. But like Henry's abasement all those centuries ago, the question is whether we have witnessed genuine contrition or simply a calculated strategy to advance his cause -- a return from baseball exile, or at the least a spur to sales for his new autobiography.
Let's just say that not everyone is convinced that the game's all-time hits leader hit this one squarely.
"Because it's so tardy, one has to question his sincerity," says Warren A. Brown, a well-known Baltimore defense attorney. "Because he has so much to gain and it's so tardy, one really, really has to question the sincerity."
Oh, the remorse
As a defense lawyer, Brown is well attuned to matters of remorse. In determining sentences, judges often look for signs of contrition, but it's no easy matter. Remorse, after all, is in the heart. How do you distinguish between the genuine and the expedient? Or as Brown puts it, "Are they really sorry or do they just want to avoid that draconian sentence that looms over them?"
Judges understandably are skeptical. Another high-profile defense lawyer, Jack Rubin, says that it is not often that an expression of remorse is persuasive in a criminal case. When it is persuasive, though, Rubin says, he has seen results.
Recently, he represented a client who faced an airtight drug case. Rubin said her crime was an aberration in an otherwise upright life. She felt so miserable about what she had done that while awaiting trial, she began devoting all her time to volunteer work with hospital patients. By the time she went to court to plead guilty, even the prosecutor recommended that she serve no time in prison.
So Rubin is a big believer in his clients expressing remorse. It's part of the advice he gives them. "I think I have a responsibility to say, 'Look, you have a terrible chip on your shoulder. You'd better start showing how sorry you are.' As a lawyer, I've got to package my client, but I sure as hell can't sit in my office in two hours and change the person he's been for the last 10 [years]."
Expressions of remorse are no less suspect in civil cases than criminal ones. Erin O'Hara, a law professor at Vanderbilt University, has studied the place of apology in the law. The convention in civil disputes, she says, is for defense attorneys to tell their clients to admit to nothing. If you're headed to court, why give the other side ammunition?
But increasingly, O'Hara says, attorneys seem to recognize value in the well-timed apology. Wronged parties deeply want to hear that they were wronged. Potential defendants -- say a negligent doctor or shoddy contractor -- are beginning to give them what they want. By apologizing at an early stage, they find that they can avoid becoming defendants altogether.
Perhaps, O'Hara says, everyone wins in that case if a simple apology brings comfort to the aggrieved. On the other hand, she says it's not only the cynical who understand that an "I'm sorry" is also a way to avoid incurring financial damages and stained reputations.
What's the motivation?
How do you know the difference? That's always the puzzle, says O'Hara. "We look at timing, tone of voice, the language used, eye contact, body language, even complexion, any sign to tell us whether this is coming from the heart or the brain."
And of course, we look for motivation, which may be the trickiest riddle of all. Acts of contrition, O'Hara says, usually are self-serving in some way. "Whether we're conscious of it or not, acts of contrition, especially public ones, are always about getting something for ourselves, whether it's increasing our sense of moral worth to other people, returning us to the fold [or] getting us to heaven."