The Value Of Public Shaming

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The bad old tweets are an increasingly permanent component of the news cycle: An athlete does something good—has a good run of appearances, or gets drafted, or, say, loses a no-hitter with two strikes to go—and someone looks up his very old (and very public) tweets, which are racist and/or homophobic and/or offensive in other ways. The athlete apologizes, chagrined. He says that’s not who he is, and points out that the tweets are years old, were sent when he was a teenager, were just jokes and do not represent what he believes. His fans cheer him to let him know he’s still one of theirs; opposing fans boo him to let him know they disapprove. His boss sends him to diversity training.

And then ... well, we don’t know what comes then, not yet. This news cycle is necessarily a recent-enough thing—only now have we reached the point where established pro athletes could have been on Twitter when they were high schoolers—that we don’t know how it goes after that. If the athlete is publicly tarred for their entire career. If they internalize the criticism and grasp that it was wrong in the first place, or if they privately double down in the face of what they consider dirty tricks. Or if—and this is the only part of this that actually matters in any practical sense—observers, young fans who look up to these athletes, get the message that these slurs, even in jest, are not okay. That it doesn’t matter whether you have hate in your heart if you say things that make other people feel unwelcome or feel like shit. The world is getting better, more considerate, more inclusive, despite what it may feel like sometimes. And maybe this news cycle is part of that progress. Or maybe it’s just fans taking advantage of the ease of searching old tweets to embarrass players they don’t like—adversarial fandom, same as it ever was, but with new tools. And maybe it starts out as one and inadvertently serves as the other, pettiness to serve the greater good. That’d be fine too.

The specifics of Sunday’s shamefest require basically only plugging in the names. Atlanta’s Sean Newcomb, as he fell just short of a no-hitter, had his Twitter account excavated for some ugly old content (the first tweet, for a context not initially provided, is a rap lyric):


(Newcomb was a senior in high school when he sent these.)

The Braves clubhouse had already been closed to reporters once word of the tweets bubbled up, but at Newcomb’s request, media were allowed back in specifically so he could address them.

“I just want to apologize for any insensitive material,” Newcomb said. “It was a long time ago – six, seven years ago – saying some stupid stuff with friends. I know I’ve grown a lot since then. I didn’t mean anything by it. It was just something stupid that I did a long time ago.”


“I think people that know me know that’s not the kind of person I am,” Newcomb said.


The Braves, in a statement, called the tweets “hurtful and incredibly disappointing,” said they intend to work together with Newcomb to make amends, and noted that he takes full responsibility. MLB, in its own statement, promised that Newcomb will attend diversity training. (Which should not be portrayed as a punishment, but as a potentially valuable practice by which we all could be served and might wish to seek out.)

All standard procedure so far. This particular iteration of the news cycle, though, had an unexpected twist. Braves fans, angry at the Nationals fan who dug up* Newcomb’s old tweets, set their sights on embarrassing a Nat, and they found one in shortstop Trea Turner.


* To be clear, there is not all that much effort required in the digging. Twitter makes it very easy to search a user’s history for specific words, which in these cases comprise small handful of the usual suspects. You can try it right now! Look up your favorite player, or perhaps your least favorite. Maybe you’ll find something. Maybe we’ll go through the cycle all over again today.

Turner was also 18 and a high-school senior when he sent these (as with Newcomb, the first one is a movie quote):


Cue the team statement:

“There are no excuses for my insensitive and offensive language on Twitter,” Turner said in a statement released by the Nationals. “I am sincerely sorry for those tweets and apologize wholeheartedly. 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.”


Nationals GM Mike Rizzo put out his own statement, saying what you’d expect it to say. The whole thing happened too late in the evening for MLB to put one out, but you know exactly what it’ll say when it comes.

Three semi-related thoughts:

1. Teen boys are idiots. (This is a partial explanation for why these old tweets seem to be so common, though not an excuse.) I know, I was a teen boy. Teen boys say things they’re not supposed to say, to shock or as a joke, and they find inherently funny things that cross the lines of decency. If this phenomenon appears especially common among athletes, maybe even specifically baseball players, that’s perhaps no accident. These are all straight, white, extremely able-bodied men; and if a given set of jokes aren’t always about race, say, or sexual orientation, the one thing they have in common is that they all come from a position of privilege.


Teen boys’ tendency to shock is, to an extent, ingrained—socially, adolescence involves parroting, peer pressure, and pushing boundaries to see where the boundaries are, and physiologically, teens’ brains are literally not fully formed. They will say things they may not actually believe, to get a reaction or to get a laugh. But that it is ingrained does not make it inevitable. It is possible to go through your teen years subject to those social and physiological pressures and not say things that hurt and belittle entire swaths of human beings. It is remarkably easy to not say them publicly. Parents can try to impress on their children the decency to have enough respect for other people not to do this. It is not too much to ask.

2. On a practical level, I do not understand why every famous person has not already deleted their old tweets. Every time it happens, I am baffled why it’s not the very first thing an agent has brought up with a young athlete upon signing. Even if you think you said nothing hurtful in the past—even if you didn’t—you have nothing to lose and lots of pain to spare yourself and others. As a former idiot teen boy, I am glad my every utterance has not been permanently archived, and if it were and I could delete that archive, I would do so in a heartbeat.


This is not “covering up” bad stuff, mind you, but a proactive acknowledgement of what players are currently admitting only after the fact: that they’ve changed and matured since high school. I would be ashamed if someone broadcast my worst comments from my teen years, but, even before and without that public humiliation, I’m ashamed that I said those comments. I think (I hope) this is a sign that I’ve become a better person.


3. Public shaming has value. People could use more shame, in general. (Roth cut to the heart of this, calling shame “a broader and more compelling force that, when suitably brought to bear, would keep people from behaving in ways they ought not.”) And public shame is a crucial part of that force—it’s just another term for what we might otherwise call norms or standards of decency. There are certain things we cannot say or do without (ideally) being reminded, from outside, that these things are unacceptable and there are valid reasons for them being unacceptable.

Is it entirely satisfying if there’s a 16-year-old out there right now who will be a pro athlete in a decade, and who refrains from tweeting a gay joke because he considers the possibility that it might embarrass him once he gets famous? No. You’d prefer the kid instead internalize reasons not to tweet the gay joke that include having empathy for gay people, or anyone different from himself. But is it ultimately to the good that our hypothetical teen refrains from tweeting that joke, no matter his reason? Undoubtedly.


Even better, perhaps, this 16-year-kid sees what happened with Josh Hader and Sean Newcomb and Trea Turner and takes a moment to stop and think about why their old tweets are a source of shame. Maybe our teen decides to stop making offensive jokes and comments because he understands that they rely, necessarily, on being offensive to someone, and grasps that that’s wrong. Less hurt and less hate lead to even less the next time around; that’s a good cycle to be a part of. Let’s call it abnormalizing this stuff, and public shaming is the mechanism.