Brewers relief pitcher Josh Hader signs autographs before a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sunday, the day after Milwaukee fans gave him a standing ovation. (Morry Gash)
Sports columnist

When the fans began to rise, Khalif Rainey’s friends who sat in the stands at Milwaukee’s Miller Park picked up their camera phones just as they picked up their jaws. They snapped photos and videos, just to make sure they weren’t imagining what was happening.

“They were saying, ‘I can’t believe what I just witnessed,’ ” Rainey said. And who could? Here was a ballpark faced with how to respond to a pitcher who had posted on social media several years ago vile, misogynistic, racist, homophobic vitriol. The acts were egregious, even if they were years old. The response was a full-throated standing ovation.

“It was truly a sad moment,” Rainey said. “I just thought, ‘I can’t believe this is where we are as a community.’ ”

Let’s do this: Let’s take Josh Hader at his word. (Work with me here for a minute.) We are supposed to be a forgiving nation, right? So if he says what he posted — phrases such as “white power” and slurs demeaning all manner of people — “were never my beliefs,” then, fine. He was 17 then, not 24, as he is now. He was a high school student in Anne Arundel County then, not an all-star relief pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers, as he is now.

“I was young,” he told reporters late last week. “I was saying stuff out of ignorance and not what I meant.”

Hader called them mistakes. He said they didn’t represent who he is. And the good people of Wisconsin, they heard him. They trusted him. Saturday against the Los Angeles Dodgers, when he made his first appearance for the Brewers following the All-Star Game in Washington — during which his disgusting missives were unearthed — he got that standing-O. Monday night, Hader entered with two outs in the sixth inning against the visiting Nationals. Not everyone stood up this time. But again, undeniable, indisputable warmth — maybe one in four people on his or her feet.

“It’s an embarrassment,” Rainey said. “It’s not who we are as a city.”

Rainey is 37, and he has earned the right to make these assessments. He is a native Milwaukeean. He went to public high school there. He returned there after college. He is raising a family there. And for the past two years, he has served as the alderman for the city’s seventh district.

The Zip code Rainey represents, 53206, has “a higher percentage of black men incarcerated than any other in the United States,” he said. Indeed, one study showed more than six in 10 black men from that part of Milwaukee will spend time in an adult correctional facility by the time they reach their mid-30s.

So for Rainey and others in Milwaukee, what Hader tweeted all those years ago — tweets for which he has apologized, both in public and to his teammates — isn’t about Hader all by his lonesome. It’s about how those actions fit into a city that has long struggled with race relations. This is a city in which Sterling Brown, who plays for the Milwaukee Bucks, was arrested and tased during a conversation with police over an innocuous parking violation this past winter.

Rainey and his constituents are dealing with a seemingly irreversible achievement gap in their schools. They’re dealing with a widening income gap in their workforce. Then, when Hader entered against the Dodgers, the camera panned across the crowd — mostly white — and captured smiling, cheering fans?

“We have to talk about it,” Rainey said in a phone interview Tuesday. “We have to talk about how that looks to the rest of the country.”

The rest of the country has already weighed in, albeit in a roundabout way. A week from Thursday, the first NFL preseason game of the summer will be played in Canton, Ohio, between the Chicago Bears and the Baltimore Ravens. When the Nationals played the Brewers on Monday night, more than a few fans at Miller Park sported Green Bay Packers jerseys. Football season is nigh.

When Brewers fans rose to support Hader on Saturday night, Rainey couldn’t help but think about how football players — most of them African American — had been received when they expressed their views over the past year, be it on social media or during silent protests during the national anthem. Colin Kaepernick — social activist, unemployed quarterback — was born 30 years ago in, of all places, Milwaukee.

“The juxtaposition is blatantly obvious to the world,” Rainey said. “Here you have Kaepernick, a Milwaukee native, who took the onus to say, ‘I’m going to bring attention to a cause I believe in,’ vilified and basically exiled from the NFL because of it. And then on the other hand, you have a young guy who unfortunately said things that were totally contrary to everything we believe in and want to be, yet he’s embraced and encouraged for it.

“For me, I just want the world to know that all of us here in Milwaukee don’t represent that.”

But the imagery, it’s going to be hard to remove from our brains. It’s impossible to know what each person in a crowd of 26,073 is thinking. And it’s dangerous to say those who stood and cheered Hader — presumably for how he handled the aftermath of the situation, not for the tweets that generated it — are the same people who see football players kneeling or locking arms and call them unpatriotic, ungrateful and worse.

Still, it’s worth thinking about as the Hader incident gets further behind us and the NFL season rapidly approaches. What did the fans at Miller Park say about themselves when they embraced an embattled pitcher? What will the fans at, say, Green Bay’s Lambeau Field say about themselves when they react to Packers players who use their platforms to draw attention to mass incarceration, to social justice, to issues they find important?

Rainey said he is not out to get Hader or instigate a protest against the pitcher.

“I don’t think there’s anyone saying we hate Hader,” Rainey said. “In Milwaukee, we embrace our athletes. I think at the end of the day, we have to recognize this is an opportunity for us to improve. I think if he were to open himself up to the community, to be a part of those conversations that we need to have, he can advance social justice.”

Whether that happens, who knows? Right now, all we have is Josh Hader, who stained himself with his own words — then tried his best to address the situation with both fans and teammates. And we have Milwaukee fans, who stood and cheered. For what? Maybe they listened to Hader, took him as sincere, and wanted to show support. Wouldn’t it be great if football fans looked at NFL players this fall, listened to the message they had to impart, and showed support, too?

For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.