People change. It’s hard to argue with that, although there are those who do. “A leopard doesn’t change its spots,” some of them insist. While that feline observation may be true, there’s pretty hard evidence that with humans, change happens.

But does evolution of mind, body, and soul absolve us of heinous things we said and did years ago, when we were, say, 17?

That’s one question dogging baseball star Josh Hader these days. Social media’s morality police have been hounding the 24-year-old Milwaukee Brewers pitcher since his ugly Twitter history surfaced on July 17. Hader haters even booed him at a July 26 game in San Francisco over a series tweets he wrote during an eight month period from October 2011 to May 2012, when he was 17 and 18 years old.

A sampling:
I hate gay people.
white power lol
Need a b*tch who can f*ck, cook, clean right.

Related: Internet flooded with racist, homophobic tweets written by pitcher Josh Hader during All-Star game

Openly gay Will and Grace actor Leslie Jordan told TMZ on July 30 that it’s much ado about nothing.

“People say things,” he said. “Come on, we were kids. We didn’t know. We said all kinds of things when we were kids and to bring that up… That’s just people hunting for stuff.”

Digging-up-dirt motives aside, Hader’s unearthed comments are unquestionably trashy. Given that he made them as a teenager six years ago, though, should we hold him accountable now? I wonder if Hader defenders would be so willing to overlook a more consequential #MeToo or #BlackLivesMatter indiscretion in retrospect. Are we less culpable for past words than for past deeds? Is it OK if nobody was physically or mentally harmed?

Here’s something else to consider: If a 17-year-old posted those tweets today, would we shrug them off and say, “Oh, it’s OK. He’s only 17. He’ll grow out of it”?

I wouldn’t. I’d give that 17-year-old hell, too. People may change, but homophobia and racism aren’t like a fondness for paisley and t-shirts with silly phrases on them. They’re more deeply ingrained. People don’t just outgrow them. Homophobic, racist adults were once homophobic, racist teens.

By 17, our personalities and characters are pretty much in place. Someone who’s an alcoholic at 17 probably will always struggle with it. Someone who suffers from depression at 17 likely will experience a lifetime of lows. Homophobia, racism, and misogyny are not in the same chronic-condition category as alcoholism and depression, but they aren’t things people just leave behind with the paisley and tacky tees – or just because they become famous.

That’s not to definitively say that those old tweets represent Hader today. If he were circulating in my orbit, however, I’d be as wary of him as I would be of the classmates who used to taunt me with “I smell nigger” in seventh grade.

I haven’t outgrown being taunted by youngsters. Under-20 guys occasionally send me offensive messages on Grindr. Sometimes, they’re borderline-to-outright racist. I don’t hold them to lower standards than older gays. If they were to approach me nicely in six years, I wouldn’t be so quick to clean their slates.

The harsh truth is that the harsh truths we express when we’re young can follow us for a lifetime. If a Presidential campaign can be threatened by a candidate’s draft dodging or pot smoking decades ago, then a 24-year-old can be held accountable for things he wrote six years ago.

“It was something that happened when I was 17 years old,” Hader said in apology. “As a child, I was immature. I obviously said some things that were inexcusable.
“That doesn’t reflect on who I am as a person today. And that’s just what it is,” he continued, adding, “I’m deeply sorry for what I’ve said and what’s been going on. And like I said, that doesn’t reflect any of my beliefs going on now.”

Do I buy Hader’s apology? Not quite–not yet. Of course, he’s not going to stand by what he wrote back then. That would be career suicide.

I’d probably be quicker to forgive, forget, and move on if it had been just a one-time Twitter outburst. But that the offending tweets were spread out over a period of eight months suggests he had more than a temporary lapse of reason.

His use of the N-word, which he never directly tied to race, is perhaps the least offensive of his offenses. He used the word in much the same way rappers do, even quoting rap lyrics. I don’t subscribe to the notion that black and Latino rap fans–and rappers themselves–get a pass that white rap fans don’t get.

If rappers are going to use the word to underscore their street cred, then they and the rest of us are going to have to accept that their fans, both black and white, will mimic them.

“I hate gay people” is harder to write off as the ramblings of misguided youth, especially when considered in the context of his other tweets, which include that Ku Klux Klan shout-out and casual misogyny and sexism. (Note: That he was sometimes quoting rap lyrics is less relevant than the rap lyrics he chose to quote.)

Related: Watch a stadium full of baseball fans boo this MLB pitcher for his homophobic past

While I don’t think his Major League Baseball superiors should punish him retroactively, Hader is going to have to do a lot more than apologize to convince me that his 17-year-old self isn’t lurking beneath the surface of his mid-twenties self.

Anyone can say they’ve changed, but I would like him to explain how he’s changed and why he changed. Was it a series of events, or did he just wake up one day and realize that he’s no longer a racist, homophobic jerk? Does he now feel compelled to do anything to try to make the world a better, more tolerant place?

Only Hader knows for certain how he actually feels about gays, blacks, and women today. But if nothing else, hopefully the fallout will influence teens on Twitter, on Grindr, and in the material world to express themselves with caution.

If you say what’s on your mind today, you may have to answer for it tomorrow.

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