The day after one of the new-age dumpster divers went more than six years deep into Sean Newcomb’s Twitter account and exposed some ugly entries, it wasn’t exactly like all his Braves teammates were scrambling to scrub their own accounts.
As a young, hip fellow with perfect hair, Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson is the very picture of a dedicated social-media user. In light of the Newcomb episode, Swanson figured that reviewing his own words from years and years ago would be a “necessary action.”
But there was no urgency.
“At some point I will. But I really don’t think there’s anything out there,” Swanson said.
“I’ve been pretty smart (with that) my whole life.”
Such confidence has to be particularly comforting now in light of a spate of unsettling glimpses into pro athletes as their younger selves. In quick succession, anonymous users pushed out old tweets employing offensive racial and homosexual epithets from Milwaukee reliever Josh Hader, Braves starter Newcomb and Washington shortstop Trae Turner. Then on Wednesday another of the drip-drip-drip of offensive messages, this from 2012 and Yankees starter Sonny Gray, what he termed to be an “inside joke.” All that following a similar episode involving Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen, less than 24 hours before the NFL draft.
Who knows who it will be tomorrow?
It’s become a too-familiar chain of events.
During a player’s high point, when he is most in the spotlight – for Newcomb it was coming within one strike of a no-hitter Sunday – there is released a sequence of old offensive social-media posts.
That’s followed by instant contrition. Said Newcomb: “It’s not acceptable in any way, not a reflection of the person who I am. I don’t think that’s any kind of language to use in any context. ... Once I was aware of the situation I felt it was important to get an apology out right away.”
Teammates and management rally around their guy.
“Things that happen, you have to be accountable for. The Sean Newcomb I know and the Sean Newcomb that’s part of our family here is not that guy (represented by those tweets). To a man we’ll all support him,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said.
“I think at the end of the day everyone understands and realizes that does not directly reflect who he is,” Swanson said. “He prides himself on being a great guy and a great teammate, and we got nothing but love for him.”
And the fan base generally forgives, sometimes inappropriately. Milwaukee fans greeted Hader with a standing ovation during his first home appearance after his offensive posts were made known – which drew even more criticism from multiple outside observers.
The context of these tweets are lost in time. And it is impossible for anyone other than the man in the mirror to know really how far he has distanced himself from that kind of thinking.
The motives of those digging up the offensive entries are likewise open to debate. Reached via Twitter direct message by the Associated Press, “@NatsSquid,” who posted the old Newcomb tweets, said, “Baseball culture is toxic, and I want players to be held accountable for what they say.” He denied that, as a Nationals fan, it was an effort to embarrass a rival’s player.
By now it should surprise no one that the social-media landscape is part clover-covered meadow, part minefield. Just as it is hardly news that there are those out there who love to play gotcha from behind the curtain of online anonymity.
And, yet, here we are.
It’s just a fact of life in the social-media age: Words matter. And hateful words seem to matter even more.
Like all the local pro franchises, and like many businesses of all kinds, the Braves said they investigate the social media history of prospective players.
“It’s a huge component, absolutely,” Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos. “Especially in the draft, we comb through it as much as we can (Newcomb was acquired via trade). You try to gather as much information as you can on a player. Looking for clues, looking for insights.”
And, yes, the Newcomb episode has prompted some self-auditing by the franchise.
“Anytime something like this happens, it makes you review any systems you have in place to see how you can get better. It will force you to do that, and rightfully so,” Anthopoulos said.
At the grass-roots level – where these offensive tweets originated – it’s not like this generation of athlete should be going into the wider world naïve to the ways of self-expression. Do they need any more proof than the past few weeks that humiliation is just a hashtag away?
The recent lessons only reinforce those already being offered the young athlete.
A couple of years ago, Karl McCray, president of the Atlanta Celtics AAU program, was having problems with players getting into a social-media war of words with opposing players and coaches. That has subsided, he said, since the program began putting out a message of restraint.
“We sit down with players and parents and have a meeting, get them to understand how critical and serious social media is,” McCray said. “They take it for granted as being fun, being loose and letting go, but it’s a rude awakening when we kind of let them know how serious it is and how much of an impact it can have on their future.”
When long-time Parkview baseball coach Chan Brown meets with players and their parents before the start of the season, responsible tweeting/Instagram use/whatever is part of the program.
“At parents’ meetings we’re constantly preaching about social media and how it can destroy a lot of hard work in a hurry,” Brown said. “And in the same sense, social media can help if you use it the right way.”
There’s the attraction. It’s not like players are going to suddenly abandon social media because of few of their number can’t handle the platform. It’s too ingrained in the culture now to turn back. And for many, such as Swanson, the benefits of social media’s reach far outweigh the Newcomb moments.
“I think sometimes we get caught in this dark hole that social media is so terrible because there’s always negativity out there,” Swanson said. “If you use it the right way and use it as the kind of platform that you should, there are a lot of positives that can come from it.
“Your reach and your platform are so huge – especially at this level. There are so many things going on in this world that you can put a positive spin on. I think it’s important that people understand that there are a lot of good things out there, a lot of good people out there. The more stories we see out there about things like that, the better off we’ll be.”
Given where we’re at in the timeline of social media, given how in tune users should be with the implications of what they put out there, there remains the question of just how did this happen to Newcomb? Shouldn’t those old offensive tweets been taken down long ago (although someone could have saved them beforehand, regardless). Shouldn’t those ugly words have been intercepted somewhere between Newcomb’s years at the University of Hartford, then as a first-round pick of the Angels, then as a trade acquisition of the Braves. Where was his agent – a guardian of the brand – in all this?
And whatever the case, how will the deeply embarrassing episode affect the future performance of a young starter upon whom the Braves are counting heavily?
But in asking some of those questions, we’re missing the point, Anthopoulos believes. To be concerned about why and how this came to light is to worry about the wrong thing.
While franchises are bound to dig deeper into the social-media history of its players as a result of such incidents, “That’s not really the point as far as I’m concerned,” the Braves GM said.
“The goal of all this is that it doesn’t happen to begin with. It isn’t about whether you get caught or not. That doesn’t solve it. The bigger focus here is that such language isn’t used. That’s the root of the issue, if that gets addressed you don’t even have to think about that other stuff.
“The story shouldn’t be: Oh, they got caught, they should have pulled it off (the site). On one hand I understand someone saying that. But it should be: Why was it even written or said to begin with? That’s the issue, not that someone found it.”