Fortunes changed in a snap for a group of young female athletes this weekend.
On Friday, a softball team from Atlee, Va., advanced to the championship of the Junior League World Series, an international tournament featuring the best softball teams in the world for girls aged 12-15. They beat a team from Kirkland, Wash., 1-0, in a game the Richmond Times-Dispatch described as "heated." (Late in the game, a Kirkland player was ejected for reading signals from second base and relaying them to the batter, according to the paper. One of the Kirkland coaches was also ejected.)
After the game, six Atlee players posed for a now-infamous Snapchat photo in the dugout: Five of the six had their middle fingers extended, and the caption made clear the gesture was intended for Kirkland's players. In an interview with RVASports, one of Atlee's three coaches, Chris Mardigian, said the team had been targeted by "harassment" from Kirkland's players.
Atlee manager Scott Currie had his team delete the post and told the Richmond Times-Dispatch his team apologized in person later that night. But on Saturday -- only hours before the championship game -- Little League officials announced that Atlee had been removed from the tournament, with Kirkland taking their place in the title contest.
In a statement, Little League spokesman Kevin Fountain called the post a "violation of 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."
"It's a travesty for these girls," Currie told the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Saturday afternoon "Yes, they screwed up, but I don't think the punishment fit the crime."
Sports on Earth placed calls to Currie and Mardigian, but neither could be reached for comment.
Was it an overreaction to punish the whole team for the actions of a small group? Or a severe, but important, lesson in sportsmanship? Could the League have simply punished the players in the photo and left the rest of the team alone?
Regardless of where one stands, this could be a broader teachable moment for coaches and parents of young athletes about the impact of social media, and the consequences that can come from displays of immaturity. Nothing is ever completely private (especially when one screenshot can make a post go viral), and it is always best to take the high road, no matter how intense a game gets.
For Atlee, the end result was a lost opportunity. After the decision had been made to eliminate the team, Kirkland lost, 7-1, to a club from Poland, Ohio, in Saturday's championship game.
"It is important to remember the young women athletes involved in this unfortunate event are minors who are part of the fabric of this community that supported them and which they were honored to represent," Atlee's team said in a statement. "Those involved feel very deeply this lapse in judgment, and wish your consideration for their privacy at this time. These young athletes are part of Atlee Little League. As all young athletes are trained to do, they will brush themselves off after a loss, and try again -- after having learned a most valuable lesson."
1/2 Thanks @atlee_softball coach 4 Teaching team ownership of a mistake. Respect is hard earned, easily lost. Tough, positive team lesson.- Peter Beckman (@ooglek) August 6, 2017
Hopefully, the Atlee team members who posted the Snapchat will indeed recover from the self-imposed setback. They are certainly not the only ones who have had a "lapse in judgment" on social media -- players much older, and who should know better, have done worse. Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook can be valuable tools for prominent individuals to craft a message and grow their presence, if used responsibly, but one ill-conceived post can also be costly.
This story does have a somewhat happy ending, though. On Sunday, when the Atlee team returned home, fans, friends, family and supporters were there waiting for them at the airport, carrying signs that said "Welcome home" and "You are all stars to us."
"It shows the community and the parents we have," Matt Pastore, one of the team member's dads, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "I know it's not all positive, but it's overwhelming the support we had here today and that's part of the healing process."