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The standing ovation for Josh Hader connects to something deeper

Why is there more sympathy, nuance and understanding for Hader than for players who peacefully protest?

I’m not sure who had a worse response to Milwaukee Brewers reliever Josh Hader’s racist and homophobic tweets — Major League Baseball or the Milwaukee Brewers fans who gave Hader the kind of standing ovation normally reserved for a no-hitter when he took the mound on Saturday night.

Both were bad. But the rousing ovation by Milwaukee fans for someone who proudly tweeted the N-word regularly, and also tweeted that he hated gay people, felt like a new low.

It was seven years ago that Hader unleashed his innermost racist thoughts on Twitter, and since making his tearful apology in recent days and assuring people that his words then do not represent the 24-year-old man he is now, there seems to be an unofficial contest to see how quickly Hader can be redeemed.

“I just want them to know that I’m sorry for what I did back in the day and the mistakes that I made and that they are a family to me and that they [the tweets] aren’t me and what I meant,” Hader said. “They were never my beliefs. I was young. I was saying stuff out of just ignorance, and that’s just not what I meant.”

It’s one thing for his teammates to rush to his defense since they know him intimately and are in the best position to attest to who he is now, even if most of them didn’t know him when he sent those awful tweets.

But do those Brewers fans who stood and cheered for Hader on Saturday understand how bad those optics were and what a terrible message that sent to the people most hurt by Hader’s tweets?

Hader didn’t return from war. He didn’t save a cat from a tree. Nor did he rescue a baby from a burning building. There is nothing heroic or courageous about outgrowing racist beliefs that you never should have had in the first place, whether you were 7 or 17, whether you grew up in Atlanta or a town of 300 people.

Besides, it’s not like Hader confessed to these tweets on his own. They came to light during All-Star weekend, and Hader’s initial response didn’t exactly show the growth that he claims to have undergone. Hader blamed rap lyrics, and his age, even though I can’t think of too many rappers who endorse white supremacy as Hader did when he tweeted, “white power.”

The sympathy for Hader isn’t surprising despite the jarring image of him being publicly applauded for his bigotry. Beyond our problematic desire to absolve athletes before they have actually shown us through their actions that they deserve the benefit of the doubt, the support for Hader connects to something deeper.

The NFL players who chose to peacefully protest during the national anthem to bring awareness to social and racial injustice have been vilified and called “sons of b——” by their own president. And last year, Oakland A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell was subjected to countless racial slurs and received death threats when he became the first MLB player to kneel.

While I’m not saying Hader deserves to be threatened or insulted, it’s hard not to notice that there seems to be more sympathy, nuance and understanding for him than for the players who were peacefully protesting against the bigotry that Hader felt so comfortable expressing.

A lot of time has been spent talking about Hader’s contrition and sincerity, but what about the people his ignorant words were directed at?

Lorenzo Cain, one of Hader’s African-American teammates, came to Hader’s defense, but that doesn’t mean that it’s somehow unfair if other people of color want to see more from Hader before automatically presuming that he’s changed. The same goes for members of the LGBTQ community and women, whom Hader repeatedly disparaged in his old tweets.

Realize that when you chalk Hader’s remarks up to youth and immaturity or worse, and give him an over-the-top applause for God knows what, you’re simultaneously telling the people hurt by his remarks that their feelings of resentment and skepticism don’t matter.

Rather than send Hader to sensitivity training, maybe the Brewers should send him to talk to Milwaukee Bucks forward John Henson, who had the police called on him when he tried to shop for jewelry at a local store. Or maybe Hader should have a conversation with Sterling Brown, the Bucks guard who filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Milwaukee and members of its Police Department last month after he was tased and arrested for a minor parking violation. Brown can then show Hader the video of police officers wrestling him to the ground and gleefully stepping on his ankle.

What Hader did isn’t unforgivable, and it is possible that he’s truly changed. But he has violated a lot of people’s trust, so don’t blame people if they aren’t quite ready to cheer.

Jemele Hill is a Senior Correspondent and Columnist for ESPN and The Undefeated.