Republican state lawmaker and Congressional candidate Matt Gaetz set off some political fireworks over the weekend with a tweet some felt unnecessarily politicized the death of professional baseball player José Fernández.
“To all who will kneel during the anthem today,” Gaetz tweeted, “just remember how Jose Fernandez risked his life just for the chance to stand for it.”
To all who will kneel during the anthem today – just remember how Jose Fernandez risked his life just for the chance to stand for it
— Matt Gaetz (@mattgaetz) September 25, 2016
Fernández, a pitcher for the Miami Marlins, was killed in a boating accident early Sunday morning. The 24-year-old successfully defected from Cuba in 2008, following three earlier failed attempts, each of which came with jail sentences.
Gaetz’s tweet was aimed at the protest movement led by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has refused to stand for the national anthem this season, choosing instead to sit or kneel during the anthem in protest of racial inequality and police brutality. Kaepernick’s protest has since spread to more than a dozen other NFL players, high school football players, and other sports teams.
The tweet, which came just hours after Fernández’s body was found off Miami Beach, attracted backlash almost immediately.
“Delete your account, you cheap exploitative humanoid scumbag,” tweeted political commentator Keith Olbermann. Cafe.com called it “the worst tweet of 2016.” Several sports journalists also called out Gaetz. “Really, you go there now, today,” tweeted Chris Maathuis, sports director for KLAS-TV in Las Vegas. “You should feel ashamed and delete your account now.”
.@mattgaetz Delete your account, you cheap exploitative humanoid scumbag.
— Keith Olbermann (@KeithOlbermann) September 25, 2016
Others connected Fernández’s personal story to Gaetz’s hardline views on immigration issues. “Interesting how you praise Fernandez in death, but would support deporting him in life,” tweeted Ryan Hoffman.
Before long, Gaetz’s tweet and the ensuing fallout had become national news, with stories in POLITICO, the New York Daily News, Atlanta Journal Constitution, and elsewhere.
Earlier in the morning, Gaetz had posted a decidedly less political tweet about Fernández.”I just saw the news on Jose Fernandez,” Gaetz wrote. “As a Marlin fan, a Floridian and an admirer of the Cuban-American experience I am crushed.”
As the largely negative Twitter replies continued to pour in, Gaetz tried to explain himself. “My point is that while America remains imperfect, so many do so much to enjoy our freedoms,” tweeted Gaetz. “Seems ungrateful to kneel. Just my opinion.”
Gaetz’s sister and campaign videographer Erin also took to Twitter in her brother’s defense.
“Yes, Matt drew a distinction between an athlete who risked his life to come to the US and athletes who aren’t standing for the anthem,” Erin Gaetz tweeted. “That doesn’t mean @mattgaetz is discounting anyone’s right to protest or their reason for doing it.”
Though Gaetz initially engaged in a back-and-forth with some of those who responded to his tweet, he quickly gave up. Moments later, he retweeted a GIF of Fernández celebrating a victory and a photograph Fernández took with Governor Rick Scott.
Gaetz, who is running to succeed eight-term Congressman Jeff Miller, won the Republican primary on August 30. He’ll face Democrat Steven Specht, an Air Force veteran, in November’s general election.