The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When an athlete’s ugly tweets hit home, ‘it feels like an actual gut-punch’

For members of the gay and transgender community, Trea Turner’s old tweets resonated in a profound way. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

This is not about Trea Turner, solely, and before you jump to the “Oh, you’re letting the hometown kid off the hook” response, step back and listen for a minute. Listen not to the apology Turner issued for insensitive, homophobic and racist tweets he authored a half-dozen years ago. Listen, instead, to the people who are most affected. Not just offended. But affected.

“Honestly, being a queer sports fan, you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop every time you invest in someone,” Kelly Wallace said.

“It feels like an actual gut-punch,” Jenn Rubenstein said. “There’s an actual, visceral response, and you’re trying not to cry.”

Trea Turner might mean every word of the apology he issued through the Washington Nationals on Sunday, after tweets he wrote when he was in his early days at N.C. State were unearthed. In that regard, he joins a group that includes Josh Hader of the Milwaukee Brewers and Sean Newcomb of the Atlanta Braves: baseball players who authored invective online years ago and are now under scrutiny because of it.

Slice and dice the words themselves and try to rank them in order of offensiveness, a dangerous exercise. They’re out there, part of the public discourse, bringing scrutiny to the authors years after they initially wafted into the ether, unnoticed.

The scrutiny, in a way, seems misplaced. When Hader’s unreadable vitriol became public during the All-Star Game earlier this month, there was curiosity about what he would say, how he would handle it, how his teammates would respond, and finally how the fans in Milwaukee would react — which, when they stood and cheered, seemed stunning to me.

Nationals’ Trea Turner is the latest MLB player with ugly tweets uncovered

Now we await Turner’s return home to Nationals Park on Tuesday, where he will be expected to address questions on the topic before the Nats’ next series against the New York Mets, and where the crowd will have to decide how to greet him. He almost certainly will say a version of what he said in his team-issued statement: “I believe people who know me understand those regrettable actions do not reflect my values or who I am. But I understand the hurtful nature of such language and am sorry to have brought any negative light to the Nationals organization, myself or the game I love.”

You know who’s not mentioned there, in that apology? Members of the gay and transgender community.

And so, gut-punch landed. Rubenstein has been a Nationals fan since that day 14 years ago when the team relocated from Montreal. She owns a Ryan Zimmerman jersey from his rookie year, a Stephen Strasburg jersey, a Nats jersey with her own name on the back, and — a measure of true allegiance — a game-worn Tom Gorzelanny jersey. She is a devoted (read: rabid) fan of the Nationals.

When Rubenstein saw Turner’s tweets Sunday, she was aghast. The apology didn’t make her feel particularly better. So she wrote a Twitter thread of her own, opening with a photo of her standing with Turner at a baseball camp he sponsored last year. She wrote to him about her own depression in her late teens as she came to terms with her sexuality. She cited statistics showing that LGB youth feel unsafe in school, that they’re more likely to attempt suicide.

“You may not have thought you meant it *that way,* but in the end your intent doesn’t really matter,” she wrote. “If you run over my foot, but you didn’t *mean* to, that doesn’t make my foot less broken, or make it hurt less. An apology, a real one, wouldn’t fix it — but it would help.”

A real apology wouldn’t just address the “negative light” brought to the Nats, Turner himself or the game of baseball. A real apology would address the aggrieved, and would show that Turner — or Hader, or Newcomb, or whoever is next — is trying to understand, truly understand, how his words, however long ago, impacted others.

“This sounds more like, ‘Oh, shoot, I got caught and that’s a problem,’ ” Rubenstein said Monday by phone. “An apology could be: I understand that it was wrong, and this is why, and this is how I’ve changed since then, and this is what I’m going to do about it now.”

Svrluga: Brewers fans cheered Josh Hader. NFL fans should treat kneeling players as kindly.

You might say: What are these athletes who grew up in the age of social media to do? (Other than not grow up being casually bigoted, of course.) Well, Jon Lester, sage left-hander of the Chicago Cubs, had some thoughts he shared Sunday.

“If you’re on Twitter, please spend the 5 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,” Lester tweeted. “Better yet, don’t say stupid things in the first place. Too many young guys getting burned.”

This more than caught the attention of Wallace, a Cubs fan and sportswriter who has started a website — “Expanded Roster” — that will cover baseball from diverse perspectives. Wallace said she has always admired Lester, and so she tweeted at him.

“I just wanted to say that the tweets hurt a lot for fans like me who maybe are gay or are the targets of slurs like the ones that were said :/ It sucks to be a fan of something and hear stuff like that from people you admire. . . .

“So while I don’t believe anybody should be exiled to the void for a tweet, I really hope players can maybe hear voices like mine and understand why what they’re saying is so hurtful, not just why it’s bad for their reputations.”

Lester heard, and responded: “You’re right, reputations come in a distant second as far as I’m concerned.”

This is, Wallace said, part of the process for gay and bisexual sports fans. You root for someone you don’t know because of how he plays and the jersey he wears, but fully investing is risky.

Sean Doolittle: ‘There’s no place for racism, insensitive language or even casual homophobia’

“I know how much it hurts people,” Wallace said. “I know it keeps them away from being fans and that it hurts them emotionally. There are so many people who say things like, ‘I’m scared to buy this guy’s jersey.’

Here we are, then: With Hader’s old tweets slowly fading out of the public consciousness, and those of Turner and Newcomb bubbling up, and Turner undoubtedly having to answer for them in person Tuesday. The hope is, when he does, he is equipped not just with the right words, but the full understanding of why what he wrote hurt the people it hurt.

“Why say you were young and you regret it rather than make it about the people you harmed?” Wallace said by phone Monday. “Why is the word ‘homophobic’ or ‘racist’ not in their apologies? There’s no acknowledgment of the actual content of what’s said.”

That could change, beginning now. There’s a way to move this conversation beyond a debate about how much people can evolve between the ages of 18 and 25, about who the heck digs up old baseball tweets and pushes them back out there. There’s a way for the players who authored all this regrettable rhetoric to not just apologize and move on, but to engage and understand. In Washington, right now, that’s up to Trea Turner.

For more by Barry Svrluga, visit