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Media Meltdowns

Innocent Misunderstanding Turns Youth Hoops Trophy Presentation Into Hell Of Online Outrage

Here is what happened: In Hoover, a large suburb in central Alabama, a select girls youth basketball team made up of fifth-graders—referred to as "elite" because as a select team it is composed of the best available players—elected to join the season-ending tournament of a non-select boys fifth-grade rec-league. This is a thing that happens regularly in Hoover: Select teams are allowed to join non-select tournaments at their age level, in order to extend their seasons on the town's limited supply of basketball courts. In this case, the fifth-grade tournament that had an opening was on the boys side, and so the select fifth-grade girls team, which normally plays against seventh-grade non-select girls teams in order to even out the skill level, played a series of tournament games against non-select fifth-grade boys.

The custom, when select Hoover teams elect to join non-select tournaments, is that the last non-select team standing in the tournament is declared the winner and takes home the trophy, even if they then lose to a select team. "This has been in place for probably 15 years," Hoover City Administrator Allan Rice told Insider on Monday. "These elite teams come in and they request to participate in the tournament and they're told 'you can participate, but you're not part of our league, so you can't be named the champion for your grade level.'" This makes some sense, as a kind of clunky compromise: It is a tournament for the non-select rec-league, after all, so naturally a non-select team should be able to call itself the champion of the non-select rec-league, even if after advancing past all the other non-select rec-league teams they get their butts kicked by a select team that is not normally a part of their league.

The select team of fifth-grade girls kicked major ass in the 2023 fifth-grade boys tournament, made the final, and won. Whenever I kick anyone's ass at anything, which I do all the time—basketball, fisticuffs, the high jump, blogging, plasma fusion, etc.—I expect to be handed a trophy. So I am sympathetic to any members of the select fifth-grade girls team who felt sort of crummy watching a team they had just beaten be handed the trophy for winning the tournament. In an ideal scenario, the coach of the girls team would've prepared them for this moment by explaining the customs of the annual rec-league basketball tournaments, and that information would've made its way to the girls' parents, and players and parents would've been prepared to celebrate their season-ending victory some other way. Perhaps a pizza party? With self-serve soda?

The coach of this select girls team, a man named Wes Russell, has evidently known about this peculiarity of the Hoover Rec League for some time. "The City of Hoover has allowed our team to utilize and practice in municipal gyms, just as they have done in my 12+ years of coaching in both the Hoover girls and boys leagues," he said in a statement issued Monday. "Our team knew the rules of the Hoover Rec league prior to the tournament." Unfortunately, this information was not communicated as effectively as Russell thought to the players on his team, and in particular to their parents. At least one parent of a child on the select girls team had an incomplete understanding of what had taken place in the tournament, saw the town giving trophies to a boys team her child's team had just defeated, and was extremely pissed.

That parent, Jayme Mashayekh, described her disappointment and anger in a post on Facebook. Her child's team, which she described as "middle of the pack" in its own league, "rose to meet" the challenge of competing in the boys tournament, "played their hearts out, left it all on the floor and battled their male counterparts," and then were given the message, essentially, that they "don’t count."

“Excuse me? What? What did they do to get disqualified? Did they not pay their dues? Did they not play up a level in competition? Oh, it’s because they’re GIRLS?!?!” Mashayekh wrote in her post. The post gained attention from other concerned residents of the Hoover area, and then was picked up by local news publications, and then was shot out to the inboxes and tip lines of national and mainstream publications big and small (a tipster forwarded the story to the Defector tips inbox Sunday evening). Mashayekh's Facebook post went viral and spread much faster than the administrators of the Hoover Rec League could correct the record. The Hoover Parks and Recreation Board sent a statement to that said, in part, that it was "reviewing the full extent of what occurred to ensure all future programs are handled appropriately," which did precisely nothing to quell the rising outrage at what appeared to be an instance of young girls being denied recognition for something they'd earned, because they are girls.

Defector did not cover this story during the outrage cycle. Some part of Defector not covering this story is due to us being a bunch of lazy incurious layabouts growing fat and complacent off the subscription dollars of a cult-like readership. But it is also true that in general it's not a great idea to run a story—and in particular to run a story that stokes moral outrage—that is based primarily on one single confusingly written Facebook post, as Facebook is the single worst invention in human history for communicating facts.

Not everyone held off. As much as I would dearly love to do a touchdown dance on the dinner tables of these gun-jumpers, it is unfortunately not hard at all to believe that a story like the one told in Mashayekh's Facebook post could be true in America in 2023, and if it is going to be true in America in 2023, central Alabama is a place where outsiders could easily believe that it would be true. The online journalism economy overwhelmingly incentivizes publishing early and angrily. At least one national blogging outfit went mega-viral running with the story exactly as presented in Mashayekh's Facebook post, with righteous anger tuned exactly to Mashayekh's pitch.

Opprobrium rained down on the Hoover league. Perhaps intuiting that a display of restorative action would circulate faster than a corrected set of facts, Hoover mayor Frank Brocato invited the fifth-grade select girls team (plus a select boys team from another age group that also won the final of its non-select tournament) to a private ceremony, where players received trophies and "commemorative coins" for their triumphant unofficial participation in the tournaments of leagues to which they do not belong. Photos of the event show a bunch of extremely adorable grade school kids who are very happy to receive shiny plastic trophies, which is basically the very best outcome the hideous adult world is capable of producing in this millennium. Mashayekh updated her Facebook post to confirm that the Hoover Rec Center had acted to "make things right for the girls" which could be interpreted to mean that she was still under the impression that they'd been singled out and wronged. If nothing else, the Hoover Rec Center needs to work on its lines of communication.

Russell, the coach, and Rice, the administrator, have worked over the last few days to correct the record on this matter. Russell's statement says, in part, that "[s]ocial media posts have negatively portrayed the rules and policies of the City of Hoover Parks and Recreation as somehow unfairly treating girls versus boys," and affirms that he at least understood the rules going in. Russell says he "still chose to have our team compete in this boys tournament," despite knowing that his select team could not technically "win," and in general gives the impression that he thought his players and their parents understood the arrangement.

Rice told Insider that there'd obviously been "a breakdown between the coach and the parents," and insisted that this sort of result in a given tournament is not uncommon. In fact, according to Rice, the boys team that was invited to the ad hoc mayoral ceremony Monday had "one of our city council member's sons on the team." The city also issued a statement, saying that it will review its rules and practices in an effort to provide more clarity for parents, and confirmed that under its current policies only an age-appropriate non-select team "has ever been eligible to be recognized as the tournament champions."

This is more than has ever been said about the rules of a fifth-grade rec-league basketball tournament in the history of the sport. Mashayekh, too, has done as much as she can to lower temperatures. In a second update to her fateful Facebook post, she said, "I now know this was not a decision based on gender, but instead lack of communication," and said that while most parents of players on her daughter's team were not aware of the tournament rules, she accepts that this is the way things have always been done with Hoover Rec League basketball, and apologized that her initial post "has had the implications it has."

Reasonable people can disagree about how much benefit of the doubt a parent owes youth league administrators, but for me it's hard to get very angry at a parent who gripes to an initially small audience on Facebook about a perceived injustice without necessarily anticipating what an extremely fickle online outrage economy will make of her post. Besides, innumerable grinding community-level injustices are allowed to persist precisely because of the practical hurdles of overcoming offline apathy; this is one of the great weapons of the status quo. Online moral outrage is comparatively cheap, which makes it a much more effective resource for, say, a busy parent who due to poor communication has a perfectly rational belief that her daughter's youth sports team is being unfairly targeted by the largely unaccountable leadership of a local department of recreation. That doesn't mean the parent didn't screw up, just that it's a good-faith screw-up. This is almost entirely a story of good-faith screw-ups.

The Hoover Rec League has a confusing way of handling youth basketball tournaments, somewhat ironically born out of a spirit of inclusion. The particulars seem to have been communicated insufficiently and fairly casually, which made an eventual social-media blowup far too plausible. Now that shit has hit the fan, Hoover is working to make changes that it deems necessary to ensuring that this type of thing doesn't happen again. But change is not always for the better, even when it is motivated by the best intentions: Rice said Monday that Hoover will probably move to ban elite select teams from participating in future non-select tournaments, depriving the kids on the select teams of the extra few unofficial games of fun and competition that they've long enjoyed. Rats.

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