Ryan Lochte, Nate Parker and When Apology Tours Come Up Short

Nate Parker Ryan Lochte

It’s become an all-too-familiar phenomenon: A well-known person’s name stays in the headlines day after day, as a controversy, usually of his or her own making, swirls through the news media. The past week or two, the sagas of “Birth of a Nation” director Nate Parker and Team USA swimmer Ryan Lochte have garnered a long string of headlines, and it’s not difficult to see why. Their circumstances are obviously quite different, but in some ways, their responses to controversy are not.

The reason so many celebrity apologies fall flat is because the people at the center of them don’t convey the idea that, on deep and important level, they’ve learned anything and feel profound regret. Sometimes saying sorry isn’t enough: There has to be a sense that the apologizer actually means it and has been forever altered by the experience they’ve been through. You’d be hard-pressed to find all that many who think that’s definitively the case with either Lochte or Parker, who appear to be much more concerned about inconvenient image issues and damage to their careers than anything else.

Consider Lochte. One of the goals of the Olympics, in theory anyway, is to reinforce positive messages about sportsmanship, honor and international amity. But Lochte spread a series of falsehoods about an ill-fated night out with fellow swimmers, and in doing so, he spectacularly mangled all three of those Olympic ideals while creating an international incident in the process. If poor judgment was an Olympic event, he would certainly be in the running for a medal.

Al Roker, of all people, emerged as a hero on social media when he tangled on-air with Billy Bush about the swimmer’s ever-changing story. “He lied!” Roker repeatedly said, while testily stirring the drink in front of him. That Roker video went viral in part because it accurately captured the sense of betrayal and anger many Americans felt about what Lochte had done to the team’s reputation, even as he lived up to every unfortunate stereotype attached to self-absorbed, oblivious white guys.

The Lochte story has lived on not because of the Roker video, or the swimmer’s semi-celebrity status or the fact that Brazilian authorities have filed charges in the case. The swimmer keeps twisting in the wind because his so-called apologies sound more like PR spin than sincerity. It’s not even effective spin, truth be told. It’s hard to come away from the interviews he did with NBC’s Matt Lauer with the impression that Lochte feels true remorse, especially given that he keeps framing his false statements as “exaggerations.”

And the idea that he might be rewarded for this behavior with a high-profile TV gig is mind-boggling: It’s been reported that he may compete in the next season of “Dancing with the Stars,” which will announce its new cast Tuesday (ABC would not comment on the Lochte rumors or any other casting). “DTWS” has often been used as an instrument of redemption — it can be a godsend for celebrities who needed to give their career a boost or buff up their images in the public eye. But it would be extremely unfortunate if “DWTS’” producers decided Lochte’s behavior merits this kind of P.R. gift.

Regardless of what you think of what the swimmer did or didn’t do in Rio, he has, at the very least, engaged in unseemly and poorly considered behavior. That’s likely why some of Lochte’s endorsement deals have fallen apart, and given ABC’s careful curation of its aspirational brand, having Lochte on the show makes little sense.

It would send the message that embarrassing one’s country leads to further fame and fortune, which is not the kind of encouraging uplift that “DWTS” typically aims for. Let’s hope “DWTS” is instead planning on rewarding another Olympian with a slot on the show — perhaps Gabby Douglas, Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky, Allyson Felix or any of the other American Olympians who have nothing to apologize for.

Yes, in his attempts to repair his image, Lochte did utter the word “sorry,” but that word is not a magic incantation that clears a person of all wrongdoing. I don’t doubt that he experienced fear on that night in Brazil, but he should have come clean about the way he amped up his story for public consumption, and he could have used the word “lie.” He could have returned to Brazil to face the music, or at the very least, offered apologies to the Brazilian people in person. Instead, he has done what many celebrities have done in the past: They dutifully mouth the carefully worded phrases that their advisers have told them to say, but even if their words are of their own devising, a sense of sincerity and humility is often notably lacking.

That’s certainly the case with Parker’s ongoing damage control. It’s a much different situation with a very different history, of course; these two stories and sets of circumstances are not nearly equivalent. But the reactions of the key players offer a few parallels.

Parker, the star and director of “Birth of a Nation,” has also gone on a very curious and ineffective “apology” tour, one that has stirred matters up further rather than putting them to rest. The interviews he’s given to Variety and other outlets indicate a great deal of disappointment about how the controversy over a rape trial (in which he was cleared) have affected the perception of his movie, which received acclaim at Sundance and beyond but has yet to be released. 

The fact that people would keep bringing up the 1999 Penn State case involving him and the movie’s co-writer, Jean Celestin, especially in light of the fact that “Birth of a Nation” contains a rape scene, appears to be genuinely surprising to Parker. That, in itself, is disconcerting, as is the fact that many of Parker’s statements revolve around his feelings about what’s occurring in the present and what happened in the past.

In an Aug. 16 Facebook statement that Parker wrote himself on learning of the suicide of the woman, who was harassed after the alleged rape by Parker and his friends, paints a portrait of him as a “teenager” who didn’t use enough “wisdom.” “I experienced a very painful moment in my life,” Parker told Variety’s Ramin Setoodeh. “…I can’t relive 17 years ago. All I can do is be the best man I can be now.”

No one is asking Parker to travel back in time. They are asking him to understand why the established facts of the 1999 case and the 2001 trial remain disturbing in the present day, and contain fodder for ongoing and necessary discussions about consent and assault. It’s truly hard to understand how Parker made a movie that explores the profound and enduring crime of slavery in America, which still reverberates into the present in a host of different ways, and yet wants to so firmly close the door on an event that occurred 17 years ago.

Either the past has an effect on the present or it doesn’t; Parker can’t have it both ways. As critic Ira Madison wrote recently, “You can’t erase history. It’s why Parker was drawn to a story like Nat Turner’s.”

The situation surrounding “Birth of a Nation” is an incredibly complex one and it’s still evolving, and this is not an attempt to explore its many difficult and painful dimensions. This is an attempt to reckon with why the Parker controversy hasn’t gone away — and perhaps shouldn’t, given that it’s been too easy for the entertainment industry to brush this kind of thing under the rug for too long.

Many are still struggling with how to view Parker’s film in light of the revelations about the rape trial and the suicide of the woman in the case. Given everything that has come to light, however, Parker does not appear to understand how arrogant, tone-deaf and insensitive many of his comments about the situation have been. As Roxane Gay wrote in the New York Times, Parker, who is married and the father of five daughters, “offers up the women in his life as incontrovertible evidence of goodness or, perhaps, redemption. But no matter how much he wishes it to be so, his women cannot erase his past.”

As much as these men and their associates wish they could, they cannot necessarily steer the conversation around these cases, certainly not as well as many celebrities could in the past. The power of social media has changed the game for public figures; some of the control over imagery and branding has been wrested from those who used to more confidently harness and direct it. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing: Reckonings about responsibility and culpability can sometimes lead to illuminating conversations — and even new attitudes. For some.

But at this stage, Lochte appears to be sorry that his image and his personal brand has taken a hit. One of the primary things Parker appears to be sorry about is that a once much-hyped film is now receiving a much-different reception than the rollout he’d dreamed of. Both men have made public statements that strongly convey the idea that they just wish these controversies would go away. What they indicate much less strongly is soul-searching — or regret.