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Did MLB Properly Punish Josh Hader for His Offensive Tweets as a Teenager?

Josh Hader tweeted a host of offensive, noxious invective when he was a teenager. Did MLB get it right by sentencing him to sensitivity training?

Does a day ever pass without Twitter starring in another disappointing act in modern life? On Tuesday night, after breakout Brewers reliever Josh Hader surrendered a three-run homer to Jean Segura in the eighth inning of his first All-Star Game, intrepid users trawled Hader’s archives. They surfaced a number of six- and seven-year-old tweets in which the pitcher, then in high school, blithely tossed around “n-----" and misogynistic and homophobic sentiments. (A good many others floating around were just crass, and a handful of the most inflammatory remarks attributed to Hader, including one trivializing the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, appear to have been things he never tweeted.) In some cases he was quoting rap lyrics; in others he wasn’t. He once tweeted, “I hate gay people,” and there’s no context in which that thought, expressed so plainly, could be construed as saying anything other than what it says.

It should go without saying that thoughts like the ones Hader tweeted have no place in our society—but nothing along those lines has ever gone without saying, especially not these days. So it shall be said: They’re unacceptable.

Hader apologized after the game. He said he was “deeply sorry” and that the tweets didn’t reflect his present-day beliefs; he was evidently so flustered that when a reporter asked him what had changed between then and now, he replied “Nothing,” correcting himself when the reporter followed up to say that he had meant that nothing he said back then reflects how he feels now. 

Whether his apology should be accepted, and whether he should be taken at his word about the evolution of his beliefs, are questions best left to Hader’s teammates and friends of color, and female, LGBT, and black fans of the team and sport. The three other Brewers all-stars—Lorenzo Cain, Jeremy Jeffress, and Jesus Aguilar, all of whom are of color—spoke in his defense. It’s impossible to know from the outside the nature of their private conversations with Hader, and pointless to speculate, but I trust that having to look teammates in the eye for the rest of his career will be an informal but stinging punishment.

As for formal sanctions: MLB announced Wednesday that Hader would have to undergo sensitivity training and participate in its diversity and inclusion initiatives; he would not be suspended. And to my mind the league deserves some praise for its moderate approach. 

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Teenagers, in addition to being “immature and stupid” (Hader’s words), have a capacity for cruelty and provocation perhaps unmatched by any other demographic cohort. Reading his tweets jolted me back to the four years I spent in boys dormitories in high school not all that long ago, where that sort of casual homophobic and misogynistic and racist chatter pervaded despite genuine efforts from the community’s adults to discourage it. Rarely was a particular individual a repeated target, so “bullying” wouldn’t be the right way to describe it; “bigotry” denotes something deeper; “harassment,” broad though it may be, probably fits best.

The boys who would talk the way Hader tweeted were not, as I remember it, endeavoring to hurt anyone. Their primary goal was to provoke and shock and demonstrate in the process how cool, which is to say cold, they were. They must have hurt people—because how could they not have, especially the boys of color who were trying to blend in in a majority-white school, or the boys struggling with their sexuality—but I don’t know how much they knew of that. I would like to think some of them would have cared had they known, even if back then they would never have admitted to caring. (This defense, I hasten to add, should never be extended to grown men who know full well what they’re doing. They’re preying on America’s willingness to understand and forgive, whether for fun or money or to advance the causes of racism, misogyny, and homophobia.) Given how much of adolescent life these days takes place online, much churlish teenage-boy behavior has these days migrated from the locker room to Instagram or Snapchat or worst of all Twitter, where it can be preserved in public for evaluation at any point in the future. 

Social-media spelunking has proved quite useful for holding fickle politicians to account and for acquiring a window into the semi-private views of the influential and image-obsessed. But there’s simply not the same benefit to using that playbook on tweets sent by a then-minor whose only cultural impact to date has been commanding additional respect for middle relievers with high strikeout rates.

Had the league suspended or fined Hader, it would have encouraged endless and self-defeating scrutiny of the archives of trivial players. But now MLB and Hader have a chance yet to wring something useful out of all this. Tuesday night’s fracas spotlighted the reprehensible traits that can flourish among young men and just how long society still has to go in stamping them out. If Hader really has changed, he should be eager to lead the way, preaching the values of acceptance and kindness, and convincing young athletes promising and otherwise to stop tweeting and start long-tossing.