There’s a long history of people in sports media saying something that gets a strong negative response, then offering a “sorry if you were offended” half-apology, and sometimes even blaming outside factors such as blood-sugar levels. By contrast, the apology CBC/Sportsnet hockey coverage host Ron MacLean offered Wednesday stands out. In a statement on Twitter, MacLean (seen above on air in November 2019) explained his reasoning for the “You have a photo of a guy with his tarp [shirt] off, you’re definitely positive for something” comment he made to analyst Kevin Bieksa (which was about a photo behind Bieksa that had a shirtless man and some rum); some interpreted that comment as a homophobic reference to AIDS, but MacLean said he meant testing positive for rum. What’s really different about MacLean’s apology, though, is that while he offers his reasoning for what he said, he still apologizes, and understands why some interpreted it differently, and vows to be better with his word choices going forward. Here’s that statement:
— Ron MacLean (@RonMacLeanHTH) May 26, 2021
Here’s video of the comments MacLean made Tuesday:
Jennifer’s reaction, after some dicy word choice from Ron Maclean! pic.twitter.com/1rCA8PqeTU
— Michael Bourgeois (@mikebouge) May 26, 2021
CBC’s Devin Heroux also got some comment from You Can Play vice-chair Jamie Palumbo on his conversation with MacLean:
Earlier Wednesday, David Palumbo, vice-chair of You Can Play, which promotes inclusion in sports, said he spoke with MacLean and said he “took ownership of [what he said.”]
Palumbo said he’s known MacLean for a long time and believes he’s sincere in wanting to be better with his language on air.
“I take him at his word. I’ve always known Ron to be a staunch ally when it comes to his historic support of the LGBTQ+ community. It was a good conversation,” Palumbo said. “To his credit he reached out and took full ownership of what he said and that interaction. He provided some extra context to the comment and what was behind the comment.
“We then discussed the concept of language outside of two-way communication and between two parties and how that can be interpreted outside of the parties.”
That last line from Palumbo is quite important. One challenging thing with a wide broadcast audience is that everyone in that audience is coming in with their own frames of reference, and that can get particularly tricky when it comes to specific references, or in-jokes, or slang. MacLean may have thought his comment was only about the rum, with the shirtless reference only to identify the specific photo, but some interpreted that quite differently, and it’s quite possible to see why they did. And to MacLean’s credit, rather than stand his ground and argue “But that’s not what I meant,” he seems to have realized why saying something that could be interpreted that way was a mistake, and has vowed to be better.
There are undoubtedly some who are going to say that Sportsnet (which produces CBC’s NHL coverage under the current deal)’s statement supporting MacLean in his acknowledgement and apology isn’t enough, especially after they fired MacLean’s former coworker Don Cherry in November following an on-air rant about immigrants supposedly not buying Remembrance Day poppies. But those situations are quite different. For one, Sportsnet started the Cherry situation with only a “We have spoken with Don about the severity of this issue” response, and there’s been some reporting that the firing was about Cherry’s refusal to apologize, with Cherry himself even telling Joe Warmington of The Toronto Sun “I know what I said and I meant it. …To keep my job, I cannot be turned into a tamed robot.” That’s a stark contrast to MacLean’s actual apology and course-correction.
For another thing, Cherry’s firing came after a long history of controversial comments, and after CBC and Sportsnet repeatedly defending him for those comments. The situation’s rather different with MacLean; many of the largest criticisms of him over the years have been for not pushing back on Cherry’s remarks enough while they were partnered on Coach’s Corner. That doesn’t give MacLean carte blanche, of course, and if he’d doubled down here the way Cherry did, it’s possible he might have lost his job too. But MacLean’s response of actually apologizing and admitting that he was wrong to say something that could be interpreted this way seems like a much better approach than Cherry’s “I know what I said and I meant it.” And it seems like, for now at least, that will be enough of a course correction for MacLean’s situation to wind up quite differently than Cherry’s.