In the past month, we’ve seen the old, ugly tweets of three baseball players resurfaced: Brewers reliever Josh Hader, Braves starter Sean Newcomb, and, most recently, Nationals shortstop Trea Turner. It’s tempting to dismiss the specifics of what they wrote into the easier categories of “offensive tweets” or “insensitive language,” but it’s worth revisiting their words here: Newcomb repeatedly used the word “fag”; “This gay black kid won’t stop presenting about black hair... #iwanttoleave,” he wrote in one message. “Gay people freak me out,” wrote Hader, who also proclaimed “I hate gay people” and repeatedly used the n-word. From Turner: “1. Your gay for your last tweet. 2. …..retard strength droopy.”
These messages are out of context, surely. Newcomb, now 25, was 18 years old when he repeatedly used gay slurs on Twitter. Turner, too, was 18 at the time he posted “Once u go black, ur gonna need a wheelchair,” a quote from the movie White Chicks. Hader was 17 when he sent some of his messages. Each seemed to direct the comments mostly toward friends, apparently without the expectation that those words would ever reach a wider audience. They don’t appear, for the most part, to have been used as direct attacks.
But, as Turner’s Nationals teammate Sean Doolittle wrote on Twitter, “it’s not like you can accidentally post a slur.” On Monday, Jon Lester of the Cubs chimed in with his own advice: “If you’re on Twitter, please spend the 5 minutes it takes to scrub your account of anything you wouldn’t want plastered next to your face on the front page of a newspaper,” he tweeted. “Better yet, don’t say stupid things in the first place. Too many young guys getting burned. #themoreyouknow.”
It’s a curious choice of hashtag. Is it the more you (a baseball player) know (about what happens to players with ugly things in their past), the more enthusiastically you should purge your record? Or is it the more you (a baseball fan) know (about what your favorite players think or thought), the less you might like what you find?
You might have had some suspicions, some unshakable if distant fears, that you wouldn’t like everything your favorite famous person has said or done or believed. This is hardly limited to ballplayers; celebrities generally make for lousy political saviors. You might love certain aspects of a stranger—their ability to chew scenery or juke defenders or hurl a fastball—and be content with just that. Celebrity is inherently transactional: You’re buying stock in some corner of a person you don’t know, and you probably won’t ever know much more about the person than whatever they choose to show off under the spotlight. You might find yourself thankful for this. You might, better yet, never even think about it at all.
Like people in so many other arenas, many of baseball’s rising crop of participants grew up participating in social media. The average big leaguer was a hair under 29 on this spring’s opening day—meaning he was 17 years old when Facebook opened its platform to high schoolers and when Twitter began, and 18 when the first iPhone debuted and kicked off the era of ubiquitous smartphone photography. In baseball as elsewhere, the generation that is beginning to take center stage is the first one to bring along an extensive trail of digital detritus.
But unlike so many other arenas, we mostly don’t know what players believe beyond the confines of the sport. Baseball has long been a distinctly, even proudly, apolitical space. Much of this has to do with the league’s makeup: Nearly 60 percent of active players at the start of the 2017 season were white, according to the latest edition of Major League Baseball’s Racial and Gender Report Card, which is published annually by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES). This, in fact, represented an all-time high for diversity in Major League Baseball—though TIDES found that representation of African Americans and African Canadians, who made up 7.7 percent of active rosters last opening day, hit an all-time low. Baseball has the oldest (average age of an MLB viewer in 2016: 57) and one of the whitest (83 percent in 2013) viewerships of any major American sport. While player activism has swept the NFL and NBA in recent years, baseball has held stoically on to a more conservative past: The strongest opinions of the league’s greatest player, for one, are about the weather and the Philadelphia Eagles.
“We already have two strikes against us already, so you might as well not kick yourself out of the game,” Baltimore’s Adam Jones said in 2016 of why Colin Kaepernick’s inequality protest hadn’t spread to baseball as it had other sports; just one MLB player, the A’s Bruce Maxwell, took a knee during the national anthem last year. “In football, you can’t kick them out. You need those players. In baseball, they don’t need us. Baseball is a white man’s sport.” Jones had racial slurs shouted at him last year by fans while he played in Boston.
In Doolittle’s much-shared thread, he advocated for players deleting posts that no longer represent who they are: “A lot of the tweets that have surfaced are from several years ago,” he wrote, “from a time in [players’] lives when they may not have realized the impact those words have.”
Hader, Newcomb, and Turner have all apologized for their messages and insisted that they were little more than the misguided indiscretions of teenagers. Preemptive Twitter purges or no, more of these situations—this reckoning with dismal revelations, or at the very least dismal blind spots, around the people we’ve told ourselves we know and love—are undoubtedly coming. What choice do we, as fans, have but to cautiously believe the inevitable denials and hope that they’re reflective of a more-enlightened truth?
To be a sports fan is to choose to believe in some version of an athlete. It’s a fiction that falls apart under much scrutiny—or, of course, after the discovery of hard, if six- or seven-year-old, evidence. Maybe the words of Hader, Newcomb, and Turner really were the unconsidered joshing of teenagers who didn’t understand the weight of their actions—not then, and certainly not in some future professional career. Or maybe those words were indicative of something more, and the love of all Brewers, Braves, and Nationals fans isn’t returned equally by the players they admire. We don’t know. We can’t, not really.
In the end, Doolittle might have it right: When it comes to athletes, actions speak louder than words. If the person at the plate is inherently unknowable, at least for those of us in the stands, all we can judge them by is what they do.