Please don’t rush to defend the Nazi salute coach

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​Well, I didn’t expect to be writing about seeing a Nazi salute performed by the coach of a Major League Baseball team in 2020, but I guess that’s my fault for not taking this year seriously enough.

Now, let’s begin by saying that A’s bench coach Ryan Christenson probably isn’t actually a Nazi. Keep an eye on him and his social media posts for a while to be sure, but maybe there’s nothing there in that regard. His explanation was released in a statement the A’s put out, and it doesn’t make much sense, but at least he owned up to making the gesture:

“I made a mistake and will not deny it. Today in the dugout I greeted players with a gesture that was offensive. In the world today of Covid, I adapted our elbow bump, which we do after wins, to create some distance with the players. My gesture unintentionally resulted in a racist and horrible salute that I do not believe in. What I did was unacceptable and I deeply apologize.”

The thing I’m having trouble understanding in this statement is how his arm got from “elbow bump” to “Nazi salute” as a real person and not as a setup for a goofy comedy of mishaps skewering Nazis written by Mel Brooks, but it is entirely possible that he saw himself doing one kind of arm action in his head and everyone else, including the A’s player (Liam Hendriks) who stopped in front of him to tell him not to do that, saw something else entirely. He should probably get a “man, come on, use your head” suspension of a game or something just as a reminder to think before you Nazi salute, but I’m not about to call for his job or anything unless some deep digging by reporters leads to the conclusion that he is in fact a Nazi.

That would require reporters to do their jobs, though, and, well, you can’t always expect that to happen. The thing that’s sticking out to me even more than Christenson not understanding that you have to bend your arm for an elbow bump is how quickly some in the media leapt to his defense after he clearly did a Nazi salute, intentional or not. Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle tweeted that Christenson was likely trying to do a postgame celebration “karate chop” but instead accidentally did a Nazi salute, and then followed that up by saying that Christenson would never do a Nazi salute because “his best friend is Jewish.”

Now, I’m not here to endlessly drag Slusser, either — she took the tweet about Christenson’s friend down so she could acknowledge that it was a mistake to go that route, and the link above is to a screenshot Slusser herself took so that it was clear she wasn’t trying to hide her mistake so much as make sure it was attached to her apology. But it would be great if the first instinct of reporters was not to immediately go into defense mode for someone they cover. The tweet was a poor idea from the start, and made even worse of one when Christenson’s statement released and he didn’t even try to deny that it happened or what it looked like.

“Well he has [friends from culture/religion/etc.] so it’s impossible that he was being racist!” isn’t a defense that works. It’s just patently untrue, for one, and you don’t know what a person is necessarily capable of, either. A reporter should be shedding light on their subjects, not tweeting “well, he has a Jewish friend” in order to dismiss any potential concerns from a coach throwing up a Nazi salute not once, but twice. And the reporter in question here is the former president of the Baseball Writers Association of America, not some new entry in the field. She should absolutely know better, but given she also jumped to defend Matt Joyce’s lobbing of a homophobic slur at a fan a few years back, maybe she doesn’t. You don’t need to tweet that you’re not excusing using a homophobic slur if you don’t try to defend the guy who used one in the first place, you know? Especially when, well, you did just excuse the use of it, because the fan was “saying much worse” to Joyce.

Again, Christenson likely didn’t mean it (unlike Joyce, who used a homophobic slur with intent to hurt), and the second time he saluted being the one where he went, “oh no it really does look like that, huh?” is something I can buy from a guy who managed to accidentally Nazi on television in the first place. But there is no reason to jump to his defense, especially as a reporter. Whether intentional or not, he did it: let him be shamed for it, let him apologize, let it be burned into his brain that this is not a thing he should be doing even accidentally, and then it can be over with.

Instead, now we get to have discourse on the discourse, to discuss not just whether people are being too hard on Christenson but if they’re also being too hard on Slusser, whose mentions are full of people jumping to her defense so that she doesn’t feel like she ever did anything wrong, either. Seems like a great way for no one to learn anything from the experience!

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