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Baseball Reckons With Racism on Social Media: If there's irony in the platitude "the Internet is written in pen, not pencil," it's that the phrase itself seems often erased from memory. This summer, the night of the MLB All-Star game, just as a crop of new young stars were supposed to come into the spotlight for their on-field achievements, a number of them instead came into the spotlight for their online presences: the Brewers' Josh Hader was literally on the mound for the NL team as a slew of his old tweets, using racist and homophobic language, resurfaced. In the weeks and month that followed, offensive tweets from years prior were revived from a gauntlet of MLB players, ranging from stars like Nationals shortstop Trea Turner, to less familiar names pitching the game of their lives, like Atlanta's Sean Newcomb, to rookies making their MLB debuts, like the White Sox's Michael Kopech. Some players' Twitter accounts went private to restrict access to any new viewers; there was a procession of pro-forma apologies; the MLB front office doled out no suspensions; and offending players received passes under the pretense of second chances, however un-earned. Some caught up in the scandals even received standing ovations in their first appearances back on the field. (Concurrently, outside the sports world, old tweets from Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn sent years before as jokes—in poor taste—were weaponized by far-right trolls to get him fired.)
The reaction from many to the phenomena of recirculating old social media posts was to issue blanket warnings to celebrities to delete their Twitter accounts. But while deleting a tweet or making an account private offered a form of digital erasure, the underlying issue in baseball, at least—the homophobia and racism motivating the crafting of those tweets in the first place—quite clearly would persist past any superficial, post-hoc deletion.
While others criticized players for having Twitter accounts in the first place, Nationals closer Sean Doolittle became the first player to condemn the content of the tweets and speak about the nature of apology and forgiveness. "It's a reminder that words matter, and that the impact the of words matter more than the intent," Doolittle tweeted. "Rather than feeling like this platform makes us targets and we have to censor ourselves, find a way to use the platform to lift others up and make a positive impact." He proceeded to tweet out thoughts on the fundamental value of being on social media, and about why players failed to comprehend the impact of their words. His whole thread can be viewed here.
Doolittle's insightful thread comes at an interesting time as we turn to consider the nature of apology and earned second chances. Last week, Louis C.K. delivered his first stand-up set after his me-too scandal came to national attention; Matt Lauer insists he'll soon be back on television. Notably absent from either was any sort of deep reckoning with the harm and abuse they'd caused and issued. But as Doolittle noted, the mere passage of time cannot alone stand for making amends. "Between all the people you meet and the places you go, there is a lot of opportunity for personal growth in baseball," Doolittle tweeted. "It’s entirely possible that those old posts no longer reflect that person’s views. But actions will speak louder than words."