Sean Newcomb came within one out Sunday of completing a major league baseball game where he allowed no hits. An hour later, the 25-year-old former University of Hartford star sat in the Atlanta Braves clubhouse apologizing for teenage tweets where he had demonstrated no brains and even less empathy.
A Washington Nationals-centric Twitter account had exposed Newcomb’s tweets from 2011 and 2012, and hours later — in probable retaliation — another social media guerrilla had uncovered offensive tweets from several years ago by Trea Turner. Sure enough, there was the Nationals shortstop Sunday night expressing the same regret as Newcomb.
One Newcomb tweet from November 2011 quoted rap lyrics, including the N-word, from “The Motto” by Drake.
One Turner tweet was a line in the movie “White Chicks” about the sexual prowess of black men.
Both had multiple tweets about “fags,” either in failed jokes or busting on buddies.
Newcomb apologized for what he called stupid stuff with his friends from several years ago. He said he felt bad, didn’t mean to offend anyone, regretted his words and has grown since. He said people who know him know he isn’t that kind of person. Turner said there are no excuses, offered his apologies for offensive, insensitive and hurtful language. He, too, said people who know him know this doesn’t reflect his values or who he is.
Tom Pincince, assistant athletic director of communication and media services at Central Connecticut, watched the story unravel Sunday just as he had watched a similar narrative with 2011 tweets by the Milwaukee Brewers’ Josh Hader spread on social media as he pitched in the All-Star Game a few weeks ago.
Pincince has three daughters, the oldest 14, and his passion for social media responsibility has turned into an avocation outside his job. He has made upward of 100 presentations from third graders to college seniors in recent years. He appeared on WFAN in New York. He is the flashing yellow light on the perils of social media.
“It’s unfortunate, but not unavoidable,” Pincince said. “Everyone needs to be involved in the education process all the way up to the pros, so they understand good decisions on social media is important. Often, they are in such a hurry to post things and react to things they don’t think of the consequences of their actions.
“Professional athletes have to be shown what a big deal this can be. They should go through their accounts and see what isn’t representative of who they are. Their agents should be telling them that. There should be social media training for every team at the professional level to look at things from the past and at things they never should have posted.”
And delete them. Or start a new account.
There are scarier places in the world to be than inside the head of an 18-year-old male, but I can’t think of many. Extensive knowledge without much wisdom, competitive, aggressive, all hormones and hurt. They can be hard. They can lack empathy. They say shocking stuff for attention. They joke about gross stuff with buddies.
Yes, they are old enough to fight our wars, and some use that as validation to connect teenage tweets to the total moral fiber of a 25-year-old major leaguer. Word of warning: History shows those who most want to wage war are older men that brainwash the flower of our young.
Yes, 18-year-old boys with hair-trigger reactions and 140 characters, can be morons. But they’re our morons and there are few more beautiful things on earth than to watch the gruff, rough edges disappear and polished gentlemen, sensitive dads emerge. It’s called maturity.
This is not to diminish the hurt their tweets can cause. One by Hader, “I hate gay people,” was repulsive. Nor is it to propose we should slow the never-ending battle against racism, homophobia and hate. Not for a second. Not for one second.
This is the first generation of professional athletes who have grown up on social media and now we witness some of the fruits of their 140-character labor. Yes, ugly teenage words can foreshadow a lifetime of hate, a malignancy to spread to the next generation. It also can be a pimply idiot, thinking he’s hilarious, unaware he might have hell to pay when he goes looking for a job or a college acceptance.
We have thousands and thousands of people today debating what’s in a professional athlete’s heart based on a tweet when he was picking out his senior prom tux or a freshman at UHart. All I know is those documented 140 Twitter characters can ruin a life, either the one who tweeted or the ones who read the tweet.
“This is how this group of athletes and young people grew up communicating,” Pincince said. “The amount of things they post every day is so extensive they’re not going to remember everything they put up or always think about how is this going to affect me, my team, my family.
“Unfortunately, there are people willing to go back and dig up these tweets from when they were 17-18. Looking to take down successful public figures years later. That’s why we’re educating on a younger level. That whatever they post can come back to bite you and be shown as representative of who they are, even if they aren’t that kind of person. There is a responsibility that comes with having those accounts. It’s a big responsibility.”
The older the audience, Pincince said, the less effective he thinks he is. Habits are formed.
“The best group to get to is the middle schoolers who are getting social media accounts for the first time,” he said. “I believe they should know everyone, face to face, who follows them. They’re the ones who see it every day and may retweet and screen shot. Can you trust those people to have your best intentions in mind?”
Do I think there should be a degree of public shaming for Newcomb, Turner and Hader? They already got it. Sensitivity training, as prescribed for a tearful, chastened Hader by MLB, is a good idea. Heck, many of us could use a degree of sensitivity training. And if what happened Sunday is to stand as a precautionary tale, that, too, is good. From here, it’s up to those athletes to evolve and for all of us to push young people toward empathy on social media. We cannot look into every person’s heart, but we can demand decency.
“I don’t think the answer is to stop using social media, the answer is to use it responsibly,” Pincince said. “Besides, the more you say no, no, no, the more kids want to use it. It’s the way they communicate. They don’t call each other. They Snapchat.
“Kids are often concerned with the number of followers they have, followers they don’t necessarily know. They need to understand the information they’re sharing is for everybody to see. The second part, if even if it’s a rap lyric, your message is left up to the interpretation of the reader. Even if you didn’t mean it that way, you have to understand it could be harmful.”
Sean Newcomb, one out away from baseball history, knows that now.