Keith Strudler: The Wrong Finger

Aug 9, 2017

As it’s said, a picture can be worth 1000 words. I’m not entirely sure we’d need that verbosity to understand the intent of a photograph posted on the social media site Snapchat last week by the Atlee Little League Softball team. This group of 12-15 year olds had just advanced to the Junior League World Series by beating a team from Kirkland, Washington, who was hosting the tournament. The game was allegedly feisty and ended 1-0, which was something of a contrast to Atlee’s blowout wins up to this point. In fact, their run total to date had been 29-1, which, among other things, made for some pretty unwatchable softball.

After the big win and celebrating their dominance, one of the players posted a photo of six of them with single fingers raised into the air. Only problem is, it was the wrong finger. The photo caption made it very clear that Kirkland was the object of their affection, if you will. That photo stayed up for a few hours, until Atlee team manager Scott Currie found out and ordered it down. They apologized to the Kirkland folks, called it a night, a looked ahead to the championship game against a team from Ohio the next day.

That day, or that game at least, never came.  That’s because the Little League International Tournament Committee, which runs the Junior League World Championship, decided to remove Atlee from the title game. Which put Kirkland back in, who proceeded to lose to Ohio 7-1.  The official explanation from the tournament committee was that Atlee violated “Little League’s policies regarding unsportsmanlike conduct, inappropriate use of social media, and the high standard that Little League International holds for all its participants.” Atlee Little League replied with something about how they were disappointed with this social media post and how they’re committed to the core values of Little League and how we should remember that these are all minors – both the victims, for lack of a better term, and the perpetrators, again, perhaps a little strong. So everyone’s said the right things, at least by standards of process and decorum.

The unofficial commentary has been less cordial. One the one hard, it’s not hard to find comments about spoiled brats, or entitlement, or how they’re getting what they deserve. On the other hand, there’s some – although seemingly less rhetoric that Little League Baseball completely overreached and should let the kids play. It seems a divide between clemency and tough love, perspective that’s likely a constitution of personal life experience – sporting, parenting, and otherwise. I don’t have a particularly strong feeling either way, although if push comes to shove, I’d probably let Atlee play. The public discourse that ensued was punishment enough. And that by no means excuses the guilty parties nor their callous judgment. But, as they say, we all make mistakes. Just ask my wife.

The question is, how does this happen? How is it that on the eve of what I’m assuming to be the biggest sporting event of these girls’ lives in a sport that is perhaps only slightly less important to them than breathing, instead of going back to the hotel and eating pizza and getting nervous, six girls chose to give the finger to their vanquished rival and post it on Snapchat? What is the psychology or conditions that got us here – or got them there, I suppose?

The answer, I’m certain, is complicated. On one hand, young athletes compete for titles and stakes that should be reserved for adults. These world titles, as they’re called, for kids too young to drive creates an unnatural sense of importance to the act. It’s certainly not an excurse, but it seems easier to want to flip off your opponent after a global war than a neighborhood skirmish. Which is why kids don’t need to play for world championships, or even state championships.  But I digress.

On top of that, this is yet another lesson in the unfortunate outcome of our social society, where every one is a content producer and everyone assumes their voice is truly important. Necessary even. It’s not just that each of us has a full production facility in their pocket. It’s that we all feel like the world wants us to use it. For probably a long list of reasons, these young athletes from Virginia seemed to believe that the world needed to hear exactly what they thought about Kirkland, Washington. So they told us. Turns out, we didn’t really want to know. Now whether athletic success leads to the hubris that leads to the Snapchat – we’d need a psychologist for that. I’m sure they’d have a word or two or 1000 to explain. I don’t know that we need it, since that photo speaks for itself.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

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