The Houston Astros Are Sorry Not Sorry

The science of effective apologies—and where the Houston Astros went wrong.

Posted Feb 20, 2020

The sports world has been abuzz with the fallout from the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal in the months since Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich first reported it publicly in The Athletic. To recap: During the 2017 and 2018 seasons, Astros players used video feeds to steal catchers’ pitch signs, then signaling to their hitters whether the pitcher was throwing a fastball or an off-speed pitch.

Major League Baseball conducted an internal investigation of the scandal, resulting in yearlong suspensions for the Astros’ General Manager, Jeff Luhnow, and their manager, AJ Hinch. In an attempt to preempt negative PR, owner Jim Crane promptly fired Luhnow and Hinch. 

Rumblings about the scandal have continued, but they reached their acme last week when the Astros delivered their now famous (infamous?) apologies. Among other things, Crane argued that the Astros' cheating "didn’t impact the game" and that "[the players] are a great group of guys who did not receive proper guidance from their leaders." Watch the entire catastrophe below:

The negative reactions came in fast and furious:

They didn’t own up to anything.” – Sean Manaea, Oakland Athletics pitcher

Didn’t think it was possibly [sic] but after the #Astros press conference, they look even worse.” – Jerry Hairston, Jr., former MLB outfielder

Your opinion sucks.” – Trevor Plouffe, former MLB third baseman

Don’t play the public for fools. Just apologize, be accountable, and move forward.” – Michael Young, former MLB infielder

Hahahahaha [Astros owner Jim Crane] is on the moon.” – Will Middlebrooks, former MLB third baseman

What went wrong?

Why did everyone—in the sports community and beyond—crush the Astros for their underwhelming mea culpa?

As others have pointed out right here on Psychology Today, there is voluminous research in psychology and neuroscience outlining the characteristics of an effective apology. Clearly, the Astros are unaware of these findings; they missed a major chance to quickly resurrect their tarnished image.

Given this vast disconnect between the Astros’ apologies and the science, we wanted to unpack where the Astros went wrong—and how they could have done things differently to turn people’s attention away from their sign-stealing scandal and back to baseball. 

What makes a good apology? Did the Astros do it?

Research suggests that effective apologies are comprised of six common elements, not listed in any particular order, which we outline below. For each one, we consider whether the Astros did it (hint: it’s not pretty) and what they could have done differently.

  1. Expression of regret: First and foremost, it is the perpetrator’s responsibility to show just how sorry they are for the offending act. The Astros did express some sorrow, but often in an impersonal way, saying things like, “I want to say again how sorry our team is for what happened.” Not a ton of regret there. 

    They get a C.

  2. Explain what went wrong: It’s not enough to admit wrongdoing; a good apology also mentions why the offending act was wrong. In this regard, the Astros fell way short—despite expressing sorrow, neither the owner, Jim Crane, nor the players have consistently said what, exactly, they were sorry for doing. 

    They get an F.

  3. Acknowledgment of responsibility: To make an apology effective,  the offending party should offer a clear mea culpa—I was behind this screwup. Here again, the Astros missed the mark: Instead of taking the blame, Crane threw his former GM and manager under the bus: “These are a great group of guys who did not receive proper guidance from their leaders.” The players, for their part, also failed to directly take responsibility. 

    They get a D.

  4. Declaration of repentance: The perpetrator must promise not to repeat the violation of trust. For instance, saying things like "I regret" or I" have learned my lesson" illustrate remorse for what occurred. In this regard, the Astros actually did pretty well —Crane noted that “this will never happen again on my watch;” a player, Jose Altuve, said, “We especially feel remorse…” 

    They get an A.

  5. Offer of repair: This aspect should offer a clear path to rebuilding trust that was lost as a result of the offense. The Astros also did this fairly well, showing their commitment to making things right by preemptively firing their GM and manager. In his apology, Crane also said, “We cannot change the actions of the past, but we are fully committed and moving forward in the right way.” 

    They get a B+.

  6.  Request for forgiveness: The final step for an apology to work well has the perpetrator ask that the victim to pardon their violation of trust. There was scant evidence of any ask for understanding in the Astros’ apologies; they were instead focused on moving forward, with Crane saying, “We have a great ball club and I look forward to talking to you all about the future.” 

    They get a D.

How'd they do?

One F, two Ds, one C, one B+, and one A. That’s a 1.88 GPA—not exactly the report card you would like to see from your kids.  

What’s more, research from the journal Negotiation and Conflict Management Research indicates that, in the case of big screw-ups, apologies should include as many of those six elements as possible. Given that the Astros included only three of the six at a passing level, it becomes easy to see why the reactions to their apology were so universally negative.

The bottom line is that apologies can be damn effective when wielded correctly, even promoting increased closeness among the two parties. Unfortunately, the Astros failed to follow the science when offering their major apology—a decision that could prolong the baseball world’s negative view of them. 

References

Lewicki, R. J., Polin, B., & Lount, R. B. (2016). An exploration of the structure of effective apologies. Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, 9(2), 177-196.

Schumann, K. (2018). The psychology of offering an apology: Understanding the barriers to apologizing and how to overcome them. Psychological Science, 27, 74-78.

Schumann, K. (2018). The psychology of offering an apology: Understanding the barriers to apologizing and how to overcome them. Psychological Science, 27, 74-78.