Milwaukee Brewers reliever Josh Hader emerged from the bullpen in his first appearance since the All-Star break to a rousing standing ovation from his hometown crowd. The fans rose to their feet, applauding and encouraging Hader as he waved his hand with gratitude, making his way toward the pitcher’s mound.
It was a warm gesture of support for Hader, though he wasn’t returning from injury, or coming back after a tragedy. He wasn’t even following up a good performance. Hader pitched during the MLB All-Star Game July 17. Several innings into the game—literally, while he was on the mound—old posts from Hader’s Twitter account surfaced, and they were ugly.
“I hate gay people,” read one. “Gay people freak me out,” read another. Some used the n-word (Hader is white). Others simply said “KKK” or “White power,” or reflected sexist, archaic ideals about women. The tweets were from 2011 and 2012 when Hader, now 24, was 17 and 18.
He apologized in the aftermath, saying that he was immature and stupid when he wrote the tweets. Some were not quick to forgive, but many, like the fans at that Brewers game last month, were. “He’s changed,” they said. It seemed that many fans viewed the tweets as a brain fart, something he was too immature to understand. But the rush to redeem and forgive young, white men in situations like this is troubling, and we’ve seen it happen so many times, especially in sports.
Sexual assault allegations against Peyton Manning—dating back to 1996 when he was 19—surfaced in 2016 and have been pretty much forgotten about since then. Ben Roethlisberger was accused of sexual assault in 2009 and 2010. Stanford swimmer Brock Turner, after assaulting and raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, was sentenced to just three months in jail after his father, among others who were quick to defend his character, testified that prison was “a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action.”
In the end, these are all widely viewed as a minor transgressions in the public eye. They’ll rattle off a canned apology, maybe donate some money, go through league-mandated sensitivity training (like Hader did) or participate in a community service project, and then continue on with their careers. They’ll keep right on earning millions of dollars as players, analysts, commentators and through endorsement deals.
These controversies end up as bumps in the road, just another hurdle that needs to be cleared on the road to triumph. We hear words like “persevere” and “come out on top.” An athlete “moving past” a sexual assault allegation or racist statement is framed as a success story. But the real victims—members of the LGBT community, people of color, rape survivors—may feel that sting forever. It’s important to remember that forgiveness, especially when it takes the form of a passionate ovation, is optional.
And maybe Hader has truly changed. Maybe he’s grown up as he’s gotten older and realized how harmful slurs like that are, even if they’re used “in jest” (though, I’d argue that intent does not change the use of a slur).
Ultimately, though, “I was young” is not a viable excuse. When I was 17, I was posting angsty Yellowcard lyrics about my crush on Facebook, not slurs. Even as kids, we know the gravity of those words, the weight they carry, the way they’ve been used to oppress throughout history. We know that they’re unacceptable. We know how hurtful they are, and we know the consequences of using them. Saying racist, sexist and homophobic things is racist, sexist and homophobic, even if you think you’re making a joke or not being serious. Even as teenagers.