The resurfacing of old tweets containing offensive language has, in recent months, created ripples in college basketball (Donte DiVincenzo) and the NFL (Josh Allen), to say nothing of the entertainment and political realms. Major League Baseball now is in the spotlight, with successive news stories on years-old tweets sent by Brewers reliever Josh Hader, Braves pitcher Sean Newcomb and Nationals infielder Trea Turner.
Those stories have prompted many, both inside and outside pro sports, to wonder why professional athletes don’t delete their entire Twitter histories when they become famous, eliminating any potentially offensive messages from the Internet.
“If you’re on Twitter, please spend the five 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,” Cubs pitcher Jon Lester tweeted on Monday. “Better yet, don’t say stupid things in the first place. Too many young guys getting burned. … Listen I’m far from the sharpest tool in the shed and there’s certainly no halo above my head (pardon the rhyme) but I know some of these guys are great dudes who just had lapses in judgment.”
Lester clarified in subsequent tweets that he was not excusing any of the tweets in question, nor was he defending their authors. But his thought was a natural one, and a close cousin to another question being asked this week: With all they have to lose, why would professional athletes be on social media to begin with?
An answer to that particular question came Monday evening from Nats closer Sean Doolittle, in a lengthy and much-lauded string of messages. Doolittle’s basic thesis: Baseball needs to concern itself with the message, not the medium, and the message hasn’t always been good enough.
“It’s been a tough couple of weeks for baseball on twitter,” Doolittle wrote. “It sucks to see racist and homophobic language coming from inside our league — a league I’m so proud to be a part of that I’ve worked really hard to make a more accepting and inclusive place for all our fans to enjoy.
“We have to start caring as much about the content of the posts as we do about when they were made and how they came to light,” he continued. “The answer isn’t for athletes to leave social media. Social media can be great for an athlete. I met my wife on twitter (long story). It helps athletes share their stories and personalities and connect with their community. Besides, it’s not like you can accidentally post a slur.”
A brief aside: Doolittle wasn’t joking about meeting his wife on Twitter. He and Eireann Dolan retold the story of their online romance to The Washington Post’s Chelsea Janes this spring:
Fittingly, Doolittle and Dolan met on Twitter, a story they recalled fondly last week on the patio behind the Nationals’ complex. Dolan was friends with Doolittle’s teammate Brandon McCarthy. Doolittle would reply to their tweets now and then, not thinking much of it. After weeks of public replies, Dolan sent him a puzzling message — “Why are you funny?”
“I was mad he was funny, because I don’t like when people are good at two different things,” Dolan said. “You should be good at baseball or you should be good at being funny online. He was both, and I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t care for this at all. You need to pick a side.’”
Because he wouldn’t pick just baseball, they ended up on the same side in the end.
(If you’ll tolerate another brief aside, turns out your humble author also met his wife on Twitter. Thanks to a shared interest in, of all things, the Washington Wizards. And now we have a chubby little toddler girl with a dresser full of D.C. sports gear. So don’t say the Wizards, and Twitter, haven’t created any happiness in this crazy, mixed-up world.)
Anyhow, back to Doolittle.
“A lot of the tweets that have surfaced are from several years ago — from a time in their lives when they may not have realized the impact those words have,” he wrote. “But as you learn from and grow out of that youthful [indiscretion], delete those posts to reflect that growth. Between all the people you meet and the places you go, there is a lot of opportunity for personal growth in baseball. It’s entirely possible that those old posts no longer reflect that person’s views. But actions will speak louder than words.
“It’s a reminder that words matter, and that the impact the of words matter more than the intent. 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. It can be tough for athletes to understand why these words are so hurtful. Most of us have been at the top of the food chain since [high school], immune to insults. When all you’ve known is success and triumph it can be difficult to empathize with feeling vulnerable or marginalized.
“Homophobic slurs are still used to make people feel soft or weak or otherwise inferior — which is [BS],” Doolittle wrote. “Some of the strongest people I know are from the LGBTQIA community. It takes courage to be your true self when your identity has been used as an insult or a pejorative.”
(Another aside: Doolittle and Dolan have long been outspoken supporters of MLB pride nights, donating hundreds of tickets to the Oakland A’s pride night to LGBT youth groups, recording a promo for this year’s Nats night and visiting SMYAL, a support and mentoring group for D.C.-area LGBTQ youth. Witness also the T-shirt Doolittle wore on his way into Nationals Park during the All-Star Game festivities.)
“It’s a privilege to play in the major leagues and we have an obligation to leave the game better than we found it,” he concluded on Monday. “There’s no place for racism, insensitive language or even casual homophobia. I hope we can learn from this and make the MLB a place where all our fans feel welcome.”
While some fans and media members have found the recent apologies lacking, Doolittle earned enthusiastic praise for his remarks, which were widely shared on Monday.