Before there was the ongoing Luke Heimlich redemption tour, the paint-by-numbers SI profile, and the Kansas City Royals pulling from the Promise Keepers playbook, there was the promising football draft pick who made the mistakes of smoking pot and taking money for his work.
Laremy Tunsil was projected to go at No. 6 overall back in 2016 when video appeared on Twitter of him smoking weed out of a gas mask-turned-bong. Then pictures appeared to show text messages with him talking about getting paid while at Ole Miss. All of this was deemed by the serious sports men who run sports and sports media to be wildly unacceptable for reasons no one was entirely clear on or, at least, willing to articulate beyond “character issues.” He dropped from possibly sixth overall to No. 13, a drop estimated to have cost him about $7 million. And while Tunsil still went in the first round, it’s worth noting that the team he went to instead of the expected (and regularly competitive) Baltimore Ravens was the Miami Dolphins, who haven’t finished first in their division since 2008 and haven’t won a playoff game since 2000.
Tunsil was honest about what happened afterward. He said, when asked about the payments, “I made a mistake. That happened.” In return, the commentators in his sport tore him apart. Todd McShay called Tunsil’s admitting to what happened a sign of immaturity. Jon Gruden implied that what happened made Tunsil unreliable. Mike Mayock openly refused to empathize with him.
Heimlich, who pleaded guilty when he was 15 to molesting a six-year-old family member, has never publicly admitted to anything, never apologized, or even strongly suggested regret. In return, the gatekeepers of his sport are constructing a generous narrative for him—one much more generous than was ever built up around Tunsil—even though he hasn’t even been consistently projected to be a major-league starter. Even a cynic couldn’t build much of a plausible defense for him; one has been built anyway.
This brings us back to his impossible-to-ignore forgiveness tour. Earlier this year, Heimlich was profiled by the gilded gatekeepers of the New York Times and SI, where he was given ample space to say he is not sorry and never did anything wrong. The girl’s mother’s adamant insistence that Heimlich did do the crime to which he pleaded guilty is treated in these pieces as a detail; if you’re looking, you’ll find it buried in among expressions of the angst of a sportswriter confused by a situation in which, unlike the final score in a sporting event or your typical episode of Law & Order, there is no easy answer.
This coverage didn’t do to the trick, though; Heimlich went undrafted this year. And so into the fold comes the latest actor pleading that Heimlich deserves a second chance—Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore.
Moore might pose that professional sports franchises and leagues have no business making independent evaluations of cases outside those the judicial system has made because they are run by old men qualified to speak to little else but sports; he might argue that his job is simply to sign players who can help the Royals win; he might say that he learned as much as he could about the case, but Heimlich’s plummeting draft stock made him a bargain and there was a decent chance Heimlich wouldn’t re-offend. He has said none of that.
Moore, as he explains things, is openly advocating for Heimlich to get a chance in MLB, but is stumbling for the way to make that happen. A piece in The Athletic details many of Moore’s public comments on this. He openly wishes someone else would have drafted the lefty. (“The truth of the matter is, I was hoping, as the general manager, that somebody else would draft and sign him.”) He also insists that his team is all about forgiveness, perversely citing as an example the Royals signing Jarrod Dyson, an outfielder who didn’t commit any crime recognized by a court of law, let alone one involving a child, but did test positive once for a performance-enhancing substance while in the minor leagues. That Moore even thinks it’s appropriate to compare PEDs to possible child abuse is as telling as anything.
In another interview, also quoted in The Athletic, Moore said that, “Their family has dealt with this. Their family remains very close today, all parties involved.” That’s directly conflicted by what Heimlich’s own family has told reporters, with the young girl’s mother saying she’d tell people to keep their children away from Heimlich. (SI reported that the girl’s father and Heimlich have barely spoken.)
None of Moore’s logic holds, but the serious men who run sports and sports media rarely limit themselves to logic, and making a case isn’t really the point of what he’s doing here anyway, as far as one can tell. This looks a lot more like Dayton Moore—the trusted organizational architect who brought a doormat to two straight World Series—simply implanting an idea in the heads of Royals fans, getting them just used enough to it that the team could possibly sign Heimlich without there being too much drama. It will probably work, in part because American forgiveness always has been handed out on a sliding scale, which tips a lot in your favor when you can jump high or run fast or have a fastball in your left hand. There’s currently a roving tent city of convicted sex offenders in South Florida that can’t find a place to live and has existed that way for more than a decade. Few people beyond the ACLU have stepped up to fight for their basic human right to shelter, and I am comfortable guessing few people in MLB or sports in general pay the issue much mind.
It’s curious, though, that it’s Heimlich, of every athlete who has ever made a mistake and of every human who has made a mistake, who gets to demand our forgiveness, or have it demanded on his behalf. He has never shown contrition, never said he learned, and never even feigned regret about anything that might have happened during that time in his life. Neither has anyone done so on his behalf, or even simply claimed that his abilities trump any other considerations; all that has happened is that he has pleaded guilty to doing an awful thing and had mercy pleaded on his behalf, without any of the steps in between being so much as gestured at. Players in various sports have gone undrafted for all sorts of wrongs, or even just because of their “personality,” and few, if any, have had the support of so many important men all suddenly demanding this crime—this one crime—be allowed to exist in the grey. It probably isn’t too hard to surmise why he, of all people, has garnered such sympathy.
Nothing in American life rewards contrition, no matter how much sports columnists like to demand it. In criminal court, it will be turned into a confession. In civil court, it will be turned into liability. In sports, it will be turned into a character problem, easily enough elided even if no one wants to do so much as say so. I understand why Heimlich will never say he’s sorry: He’s doing what all athletes do, playing the game to win, and will end up in Royals blue soon enough if everything goes according to plan. Why everyone invested in his future feels a need—or feels allowed—to forgive him for something he’s asked for less forgiveness for than a college kid who smoked weed and took a payout everyone in his position does is a question I can’t imagine anyone answering in a way that makes any sense.