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Analysis: For fans, winning trumps pitcher’s racist comments

July 27, 2018

Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Josh Hader (71) delivers against the San Francisco Giants during the sixth inning of a baseball game, Thursday, July 26, 2018, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/D. Ross Cameron)

Nearly a week after he was cheered in the wake of his years-old racist, sexist and homophobic tweets resurfacing, Milwaukee Brewers reliever Josh Hader took the mound in San Francisco on Thursday night to boos.

After the game, Hader continued to express regret for his actions and his desire to move forward as a teammate, but he also offered a familiar excuse — pointing to the incident as a youthful mistake.

“I can’t control what they’re going to say to me,” Hader told reporters. “I’ve made mistakes in my earlier years. I can’t let my mistakes distract me from my job going now.”

Neither can his hometown fans, who gave him a standing ovation at his first home outing last week. As he watched the Brewers play the Washington Nationals earlier this week, Brett Culver explained it this way: Hader’s part of the team.

“They’re not going to give up on him for something he said as a 17-year-old,” said Culver, 34, of Appleton, Wisconsin. “I’m sure he regrets it.”

Add racism to the list of acceptable behaviors for athletes — so long as they’re winning.

“When white men do something we consider to be racist, homophobic or otherwise wrong or politically incorrect, they have to do very little to get back into our good graces,” said University of Connecticut sociologist Matthew Hughey. “If the team starts to do particularly badly, we might have a different story. America loves winners just as much as it loves racism.”

After a thread of Hader’s tweets from 2011 and 2012 came to light on July 17, the pitcher apologized and Major League Baseball swiftly condemned his comments and announced sensitivity training for the player, now 24. Brewers management called his comments “inexcusable,” but also said the tweets aren’t reflective of who Hader is now as a person or teammate.

The excuses of youth, history, or a tendency to focus on current and not past character are frequent go-tos for white people caught saying or doing something racist, said University of Hartford sociologist Woody Doane, who studies the intersection of whiteness and sports.

“The ‘I was young’ explanation contains elements of white privilege,” Doane said. “We don’t let young, 17-year-old black boys get away with much.”

Some of the very fans who made a statement at the game by welcoming Hader back with a standing ovation would prefer to keep the athletes’ focus on the game — especially NFL players who have tried to highlight systemic racism with protests during the national anthem. Despite their talent, NFL players have been roundly condemned and booed for their actions, a phenomenon likely to continue with the encouragement of a U.S. president on social media.

It’s not that fans won’t turn on players; it’s a question of what they will turn on them for. And when such public sentiment affects the bottom line, owners are quick to follow.

The disparity has not gone unnoticed. In a statement this week, Milwaukee alderman Khalif Rainey, who is black, contrasted the Brewers ownership and fan response to Hader to the Milwaukee Bucks’ answer to NBA player Sterling Brown’s harassment by the city’s police department during a traffic stop.

“When you put standing ovations into a sports context, those are usually reserved for major milestones or athletic accomplishments,” Rainey said in a telephone interview Friday. “To see that moment in Milwaukee, it was like, what are we saying to the rest of the country?”

Such incidents aren’t limited to sports or even America, but are part of a larger climate of rejecting political correctness and rallying around a perceived attack on white masculinity that was stoked by President Donald Trump on his path to the White House. “The Trump effect,” Doane said, fits in with a global resurgence of nationalism and white racism.

Among the most egregious offenders are European soccer fans, who are normally hostile to black players amid the wave of anti-immigration sentiment on the continent. Last month, France set aside such feelings and embraced its World Cup championship team, made up largely of players of African descent.

They “make American fans look like a church choir,” Doane said.

Hader’s performance this season has earned him forgiveness not just from the fans, but from his team. His comments have not cost him his job because they haven’t affected the Brewers’ bottom line.

But what’s good for baseball doesn’t always feel good for Milwaukee, a city where the black population has nearly doubled as the white population has dropped by half in a generation. The stands at Miller Park, however, remain filled with mostly white fans, the same as most ballparks across the country. The sport, unlike football and basketball, is still a mostly white pastime, Hughey said.

“There’s a specter of whiteness that haunts American’s ballparks,” he said. “There’s an expectation of white innocence and white competitiveness that is connected to the intersection of white masculinity and nationalism.”

Rainey said Hader has a unique opportunity in the small community of Milwaukee as he moves past his hurtful comments.

“He can play a big part in moving us forward as a city and advancing the conversation about the race issues that are here, and that would be healing for him as well,” Rainey said.

“Ultimately, the people giving him a standing ovation don’t have the ability to forgive him, because they’re not the ones he offended.”

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Whack is The Associated Press’ national writer on race and ethnicity. Follow her work on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/emarvelous

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