A few days ago, my new tennis blogging friend Matt Zemek wrote what I’m sure wasn’t intended to be eerily prescient, but wound up being so anyway: a column about “sports forgiveness,” or how much we are/can be/should be willing to forgive an athlete’s misdeeds.
I found it an intriguing little piece, absorbing and thought-provoking. And when the news came out about the plagiarism of Neil Harman, writer for the London Times, I soon thought of Matt’s column.
The news first broke on the Changeover blog. The sporting website Deadspin expanded on the story. Then, finally, came Ben Rothenberg’s article on Slate, detailing just how far and deep and wide went the plagiarism (as well as the knowledge of it).
As I often do when tennis-related news breaks, I spent a lot of time perusing my tennis timeline on Twitter, reading the reactions of others. I saw, first, a lot of reactions just like mine, which can be represented thusly:
1. Complete and utter shock. “Neil Harman did WHAT?!” Most of the people on my timeline are not great fans of his, yet most never dreamed that he would commit the incredibly serious journalistic crime of plagiarism.
2. Dismay. “How could he be so stupid?? He’s been a journalist for a long, long time!” Without really knowing precisely what he had plagiarized (at first, anyway), it was hard to know how he could have done something so dumb, something that every journalist knows is a huge no-no.
3. Sadness. Most of us were dismayed at the end of what had been a rather respected career. For after so great a breach of trust, I personally couldn’t see how Harman would have a career in journalism anymore, and I think most agreed with me.
However, as more details came out as to the breadth of this thing, I saw the opinions on my timeline begin to fracture. I personally did not see anyone say how much they empathized with Harman, but I read others’ surprise at seeing empathy for him. I was very surprised to see a journalist tweet to Harman saying, in effect, “everyone makes mistakes… no biggie.”
I saw anger develop, both toward Harman and toward Wimbledon. Some of that was my own. I remain not so much angry with Harman as puzzled — primarily with how “shocked” he kept saying he was at hearing that he had committed plagiarism. I, along with many others, wondered how on earth you could plagiarize without meaning to. Harman steadfastly maintained that he “must have forgotten” to attribute material, time and again, because of the tremendous time pressure he was under to churn out the annual Wimbledon yearbook.
I personally felt a heck of a lot more anger towards Wimbledon, who found out that Harman had plagiarized material for one of their yearbooks (never mind, for the moment, that he had actually plagiarized for a lot more than simply one yearbook) and then did precisely nothing about it. Oh, sorry. They told him he wouldn’t be authoring the 2014 yearbook. But he still received a press credential, he was still asked to write something about Andy Murray for the Wimbledon program, and he was still invited to the Champions’ Dinner. What’s more, they didn’t even pull the yearbook from their online store or physical store until one of the journalists he had plagiarized confronted Wimbledon about it.
This was where I started thinking about the whole idea of “sports forgiveness” that Matt brought up in his piece. Obviously this was not a question of forgiving an athlete as much as forgiving a sports writer. But some of the same questions came into play.
Here is where I am coming from. I am a Christian, and as such I believe very strongly in the tenet of forgiveness. However, in Christianity we view forgiveness mostly in regards to people we have some sort of relationship with, good or bad. Forgiveness is not an option for a Christian, but a requirement, to anyone who has hurt them. There are a number of reasons for this that I won’t get into, but one of the strongest reasons is because refusing to forgive causes us to think more highly of ourselves than of someone else. And that is one of the very things that Christians are called upon to not do.
Christians are also, however, called upon to extend mercy to people who have been wronged and hurt. Plagiarism hurts so many people. It hurts the people whose words are plagiarized. It hurts the reputation of the publication in which the plagiarism appears. It hurts the readers who no longer know who to trust.
I feel bad for Neil Harman. And I don’t feel bad for him. I feel bad for him because his reputation is now shot and his career is in ruins. I feel bad for him because somehow, in some way, his journalistic ethos went out the window in choosing to plagiarize. I feel bad for him because he had a terrible series of lapses in judgment — which all of us has had at some point or other — and now he will pay dearly for it. I even feel bad for him because he seems so confused as to how it happened.
However, I don’t feel bad for him because he chose to do this. I would assume he believed he would never get caught. Perhaps he assumed that the All-England Club had better things to do than to make sure everything in the yearbooks he wrote were either his own unique work or properly attributed. Perhaps he assumed that readers who stumbled across previously-written words in his yearbook would write it off as déjà vu. Perhaps he simply assumed that no one would really care. (That certainly seems to be the case for Wimbledon, if Rothenberg’s article is any indication.)
I sincerely hope that Harman, as a fellow human being, can turn this around. I hope he learns from his mistakes and stays a million miles away from the dark road that led him to believe plagiarism was an option. I hope he can rebuild his career. I also hope he learns to show true, real remorse, rather than the current apology that makes it sound like all of this was just a terrible accident and a brief lapse in professionalism.
I’m not sure I can really discuss “forgiveness” as it relates to Harman. He didn’t hurt me personally. He hurt a lot of others, though — the writers he plagiarized, the readers who purchased his yearbooks, possibly even the newspaper he works for. He even hurt the profession of journalism, at least in the tennis world, as it will be tempting for tennis fans to lump all journalists in with Harman and declare “they’re all a bunch of hacks!”
For their sake, I hope Harman finds true remorse in himself and will take it upon himself to apologize to the people he wronged. I think they deserve that much. And I think the road to redemption will be much shorter if he can fully admit to his wrongdoings and sincerely seek their forgiveness. Theirs is the forgiveness he needs. Not mine.