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Should we hold athletes responsible for anti-gay teenage tweets five years ago?

Three MLB players were recently caught spreading anti-gay hate years ago.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at New York Yankees
Sean Newcomb is answering questions about anti-gay tweets he posted over five years ago.
Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

The homophobic tweets of professional athletes from years ago continue to be revealed.

The latest are two MLB players. In 2012, when he was 18, Atlanta Braves pitcher Sean Newcomb posted a series of tweets that used an anti-gay slur.

In addition, Washington Nationals shortstop Trea Turner also had old homophobic slurs unearthed.

They join other professional athletes like Josh Hader and Shane Duffy, who have had anti-gay social-media messages from years ago recently discover. Hader is a pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers who faced a firestorm at the MLB All-Star Game.

Duffy is a player for Brighton & Hove Albion of the Premier League. His tweets surfaced from 2011 and 2012, when Duffy was a teenager, using various gay slurs to attack people. He also plays for Ireland’s men’s national team.

Duffy reportedly apologized to the Football Association.

These men are just the most recent to have their words form their teenage years and years ago, ahead of many LGBTQ civil-rights advances, called into question.

Everton player Mason Holgate tweeted homophobic comments five years ago when he was 16.

NBA player Al-Farouq Aminu tweeted homophobia when he was a teenager.

Pro soccer player Andre Gray shared homophobia on Twitter six years ago when he was 20.

Philadelphia Eagles running back Wendell Smallwood used “gay” as an insult on Twitter when he was 17.

And on and on and on.

Each discovery is met by the athlete with some form of regret or contrition. And each of the athletes faces a disjointed chorus of reactions from LGBTQ people and their supporters demanding a whole host of punishments and responses.

For athletes like NHL players Brad Marchand or Ryan Getzlaf, who specifically utilize homophobia as a weapon in the here-and-now, it’s clear what the appropriate response is: a combination of education and compensation. Without both, the appropriate league sets no example for others to follow.

Of course, the NHL forced no punishment on either of these All-Stars, sending a disappointing message to the rest of the league.

Yet for an athlete whose teenage tweets come back to haunt him, the appropriate response is less clear. Does a 24-year-old athlete need to be instructed on why and how his seven-year-old comments were hurtful? Will punishment by the appropriate league send a strong message to other athletes that they shouldn’t tweet that kind of language?

It’s a lot more difficult to create a cookie-cutter response to someone’s actions from their teenage years. Still, I’m glad MLB took Hader’s messages seriously and held him accountable. A combination of heart-felt apology and a conversation with Billy Bean about how to make it right seemed like the way to go in Hader’s case.

I know my personal behavior shifted dramatically in those formative late-teen and early-20s years. I changed from a Christian homophobe to an openly gay man living in West Hollywood. I cringe today at some of the stupid things I said in my late teens. So I understand people can and do change.

The purpose of taking action with athletes who use homophobia as a weapon is to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Educating them helps the move past the behavior, and forcing a punishment on them sends a message to everyone else that the behavior won’t be tolerated.

Yet what message does punishing someone for teenage tweets send to his peers? Don’t tweet stuff five years ago?

Outsports co-founder Jim Buzinski has commented in the past on this dynamic, and the gravitation of men to move away from using gay slurs.

“For many boys and young men, using gay slurs is a shield of masculinity to deflect anyone questioning their orientation,” Buzinski wrote. “Many grow out of it and change.”

I’m all for punishing athletes who use this language today. It sends a clear message to other athletes that their language that pushes gay, bi and queer people into the closet will not be tolerated. But for athletes who are caught with these totally idiotic tweets from five-plus years ago, lots of education and (genuine) contrition are the way to go.

Homophobia, transphobia and other popular Twitter weapons will continue to be uncovered from athletes in their teenage years. It will serve everyone a lot better if we approach these instances with an open mind, a willingness to accept the apology of an athlete who has long-since learned better, and a hope that these athletes will become agents of acceptance and change.

Of course, if we hear non-apologies the likes of which Getzlaf and Marchand got away with, it’s game-on.