When 'I'm sorry' just isn't enough

On the one hand, you hate to take something stupid that flies out of the mouth of, say, Matt Millen and create an issue that Millen himself not only might not have intended but also wouldn't even fully grasp the point of.

On the other hand, you're left to face the essential fact that Millen is the president of an NFL team and therefore held to a standard to which other short-wired, self-referencing, I'll-regret-it-in-the-morning entities -- you say Jeremy, I say Shockey -- might not be held when it's their turn to vent cluelessly and without regard to the politics of language.

Matt Millen, in front of several witnesses, got so mad at former Detroit receiver Johnnie Morton on Sunday that he directed a homophobic epithet at Morton, who's now with Kansas City and whose team had just beaten the Lions to a mushy pulp. Millen then said the word again, proving that he's really just a big-hearted lug, looking out for those hard of hearing who might not have caught his f-bomb the first time it was dropped.

Was Morton an instigator? Without question. He snubbed Millen's attempt to greet him after the game, at one point saying, "Kiss my ass."

Is there a history of bad blood that might explain the exchange? No doubt about it. Millen is the guy who cut Morton from the Lions after the 2001 season. Morton is the guy who said earlier this year that one of his goals for the 2003 season was to get Millen fired.

Did Millen apologize on Monday? Yup, and in the most predictable (and, likely, the truest) fashion. He said his words were born of frustration and disappointment, maybe out of a 4-10 season generally moreso than the single flank-whipping by the Chiefs. He said he's sorry if he offended anyone.

Does all of that make this just one of those things?

All together, now: Not so fast.

What we have here is a work in progress on several fronts, most of them hideous. First, Millen's not a player anymore, not a heat-of-the-moment jock who calls out an opponent because he can't think of anything better to do. He is the president of the Lions -- not the general manager, the president. President and CEO. Name the last president and CEO of anything that you heard calling out someone with language like this.

Millen, of course, has a history here. He's the same man who, speaking on a radio program with Mike Ditka last year, declared that among the Lions' 2002 players was "a devout coward," then spent days in damage control over the anonymous slander. "I knew it was a mistake about a nanosecond after the words came out of my mouth," Millen said at the time. "It was careless, and I've learned a lesson."

Upon further review, he apparently learned not much at all.

And there is this: Millen works for the Ford family. When it's not busy losing football games, the Ford family owns Ford Motor Co. Ford Motor Co. has some fairly explicit rules about what is acceptable behavior in the workplace, and one of its officially recognized employee resources is something called Ford GLOBE, which stands for Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual Employees.

Alice McKeage, co-founder of Ford GLOBE, politely declined Monday to discuss Millen's remarks. For one, she had no idea who Matt Millen was. For two, she drew a quick and definitive line between the car company and the football organization, which of course makes perfect sense. The only thing the entities have in common is their being primarily located in and around Detroit, and the Fords' personal involvement in each.

That's the part about not getting too carried away with this. Football is football, after all. Big guys say wildly insulting things to each other all the time in the name of the game -- "the heat of battle," to use the all-time favorite war analogy among jocks. They say things to piss each other off, throw one another off their games. The overarching meaning of the language is zilch. There is no larger agenda. It's all about getting in the other guy's head.

Millen, the former linebacker, is a product of that desensitized environment, and that might make his comments understandable if he had just run off the field in Kansas City wearing his pads and helmet. I'm not a politics-of-language zealot; sometimes, words are thrown around strictly for cheap, low-grade effect, with no greater meaning whatever. To spend even a few minutes around the world of elite sports is to become almost Sopranos-benumbed to the most unbelievably foul language, if only because the athletes toss it around so casually that they practically disarm it.

But Millen can't claim that protection. He is a three-year executive, burned once before by his inability to zip his yap, who actually gets paid in part not to act like an overadrenalized fool. Time to start the rebate program.

Whether the Lions stick with Millen long term is more reasonably a conversation that ought to spin around a Detroit franchise that has nine victories to show for Millen's three seasons running the operation. The hiring of Steve Mariucci as head coach this year was seen as a potentially uplifting transaction. Alas, Millen got the team stuck for a $200,000 fine for not bothering to interview minority candidates before announcing Mariucci as the man.

Now comes the Johnnie Morton episode, which only proves that Matt Millen is still capable of opening his mouth before he engages his brain. Jeremy Shockey does something like that, the sports world shrugs and says, "Dumb kid." You wonder how much longer the Ford family is willing to essentially apply the same reasoning to one of the most public employees in its vast empire.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com