Last night, Major League Baseball’s brightest stars competed in the All-Star Game, a showcase of the league’s top talent unrivaled (in this writer’s opinion) in American sports. The National League lost, 8-6, but it still should have been a celebratory night as the Brewers sent five players, including four first timers, to the Midsummer Classic after a record breaking first half.
And it might have been, but for the actions of one of those men, Brewers ace reliever Josh Hader. Incredibly offensive tweets from Hader’s teenage years were uncovered during the game, and just like that, the story of the 2018 Milwaukee Brewers took a disastrous left turn into scandal.
Hader’s comments are not the first of their kind from an athlete, and particularly not from a white baseball player. In that, they are not particularly unique. From John Rocker to Steve Clevinger to Curt Schilling, MLB has a long history of bigotry, and it’s certain that there’s a lot more to this iceberg underneath the surface. Even last night, in the wake of Hader’s embarrassment, questionable comments from Whit Merrifield, Mike Trout and Kyle Schwarber began making the rounds.
The uncovered posts are, however, perhaps the most severely and alarmingly offensive comments by an athlete to ever be excavated by the corner of the internet that concerns itself with unearthing old, offensive posts. The tweets also run the full gamut of bigotry, from racism to homophobia to misogyny. It’s a truly awful series of posts, and the outpouring of righteous anger toward Hader is entirely justified. He has earned ever bit of this.
Hader’s first apology, surrounded by microphones in the immediate aftermath of the game, was always going to be a big moment: perhaps the only true representation of Hader’s raw feelings and thoughts on the subject, before Milwaukee’s PR damage control team put him through the ringer. The first good sign was that he chose to address it at all, instead of opting not to address the media on Tuesday night, an option he was offered.
It was a very low bar to clear, and it’s about the only one he didn’t stumble over. He said some of the right things: “There’s no excuses,” “I was stupid and dumb,” etc. But there were some worrying aspects, including the passive “I’m deeply sorry for what was said,” which is so close yet so far from “I’m deeply sorry for what I said.” It denies culpability, and subtly tries to shift the blame off of himself. That’s unacceptable.
Most worrying were Hader’s constant reference to how “young, dumb and stupid” he was, and referring to himself as a “child.” As a high school teacher who is constantly surrounded by teenagers, I can confirm that 17-year-olds are machines whose input is pop culture and output is just the dumbest shit imaginable. It’s an explanation, but certainly not an excuse, for some of his tweets, which included appropriated rap lyrics and movie quotes that included the n-word and demeaning comments toward women.
It’s not an explanation for “I hate gay people.” It’s not an explanation for “KKK” or “white power lol” or “gay people freak me out.” These are concrete statements that reflect a specific world view. They are extremely offensive, and there can be no mitigation.
This story will follow Josh Hader for the rest of his career. Every interview question he answers, every time he celebrates a strikeout, every interaction he has with teammates and opponents alike, will be colored by this story. That’s the price he pays. There will be signs, jeers, boos and ridicule aimed at him in every opposing stadium. That’s the price he pays. Every time he has a big moment on the field and after every accolade he collects, there will be a cacophony of people online who mock, deride, criticize and taunt him for what he said. That’s the price he pays.
As a fan, this really, really sucks. Hader was the favorite player of my girlfriend Elanor, a fledgling baseball fan. We have matching shriseys. It sucks! And it’s not our fault that a man wearing our favorite laundry has been outed as harboring racist, sexist and homophobic feelings. The hurt that we feel is nothing, however, compared to the pain of women, people of color, and gay people, especially fans of the sport, who must once again confront the fact that something they love doesn’t love them back.
For us, fans of the Milwaukee Brewers, the impulse to defend Hader against the wave of anger and indignation will be strong; when it comes from fan bases with whom we are already at odds, it can be overwhelming. We must control it. Hader doesn’t need anyone to defend him. His only defense can come from his own sincere remorse and restitution. The job of rehabilitating his image is his and his alone; don’t do his work for him.
It should be noted that two of Hader’s teammates, Lorenzo Cain and Jesus Aguilar, have come to his defense. Cain, approached by the media in the locker room and thrust into the forever-long line of people of color expected to absolve their white friend for his shitty actions, obliged the media scrum looking for the African-American Reaction Quote. Jesus Aguilar tweeted twice on Wednesday, coming to Hader’s defense of his own free will.
It should also be noted that their comments exist in the toxic environment of a baseball clubhouse, where racism and homophobia is embedded and internalized. Perhaps most importantly, it should also be noted that no one had anything to say about Hader’s comments about gay people. This is still a professional sports locker room, after all.
You can choose to forgive him if you want. If you feel his forthcoming apology and contrition tour is sufficient to make amends for his past, and if you believe he has left such terrible behavior is his past, you can decide that he has atoned and move on. If you are already there, I have some concerns; Hader has much, much more he needs to do before he has earned forgiveness from anyone. That’s up to you, and let’s be very honest; if you’re a Brewers fan, you’re more likely to make that choice. That’s the way it is with fandom.
You can also choose not to forgive him if you want. You can choose to say that no matter what Hader says or does for the rest of his career — the rest of his life — he can’t take back or atone for what he said. There is nothing wrong with that; no one is in any way obligated to forgive him, no matter what he does and no matter what anyone around him says. Women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, and other marginalized groups are asked, even expected and required, to forgive, forget and excuse dehumanizing words and actions from white men on a daily basis. If you’re a member of one of those groups, you might be less willing to forgive. If you aren’t, this is probably a time for you to step back, listen and learn.
Can people and their views change between their teenage years and adulthood? Sure. In the past, I have been quite open about my own issues with offensive words and actions in my youth that I needed to atone for. Growing up in the upper-middle class suburbs of Waukesha County, where people of color and the LGBTQ community were more theoretical than extant, it was easier to dehumanize folks I’d never met, and it was easier to see such words as “jokes” in a community that normalized them. They’re not jokes. They’re not jokes that aren’t funny, or that people don’t get -- they’re just not jokes. I had work to do, both internally and externally, to rehabilitate myself and to make up for my actions.
I didn’t simply “grow out of” it, though. I had a reckoning; a concrete and very real moment in my life when I realized how awful I had been, how much about myself I had to change, and how much work I would have to do to atone. I accepted responsibility for my actions, apologized to the people in my life that I had hurt, and made a concerted effort to do work in and learn from the communities I had helped marginalize. I still do that work, and I still have much more to learn. For some people, it won’t ever be enough. I lost friendships I’ll never get back. It’s the price I pay.
From Josh Hader’s statement, it doesn’t appear that anything like that ever happened. His comments demand a very specific kind of transformation, one that goes well beyond maturing into adulthood. It seems, when Hader replied, “No change” when asked how his views had changed since he was 17, that he doesn’t feel like his words really meant anything. It seems, from statements like “When you’re young, you just say what’s on your mind,” that Hader simply stopped saying these things out loud in public. That’s not enough. It’s not even close.
There is only one path forward for Hader now. He must own his words, fully and completely, without excuse or mitigation. He must apologize, clearly and much more contritely than he did in the initial aftermath. He must say, “I apologize to women, to people of color, to the LGBTQ community, for the terrible hurt my words have caused.” He must accept the consequences - from MLB, from the Milwaukee Brewers, from fans and non-fans, in all their different forms - with humility and contriteness; without complaint. Finally, and most importantly, he must reach out into the public, into the communities of those marginalized groups he hurt, and work to make a real, positive impact in as many lives as possible.
It still may not be enough. What he truly needs to do, the only thing that truly matters, is to change his heart. Perhaps he already has. Perhaps he never will. None of us will ever know. All he can do is try to show us, through his words and actions. It will take time, and he’s off to a terrible start. In the interim, there will be fury. He deserves it.