It happened Sunday evening during the 2022 MLB Little League Classic, a game between the Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox staged at Historic Bowman Field in Williamsport, Pa. The 2,366-seat stadium is the site of the Little League World Series, which is being televised by ESPN. The children seen in the viral clip were players from the Davenport, Iowa, area who are representing the Midwest region in the 12-and-under tournament and were in attendance for the Orioles-Red Sox game.
“During the broadcast of the MLB Little League Classic, a Midwest player was shown with filling from a stuffed animal given away at the game on his head,” Little League International said Monday in a statement. “After speaking with the team, as well as reviewing photos, multiple players on the Midwest Region team were taking part in this while enjoying the game. As only one player appeared on the broadcast, Little League International understands that the actions shown could be perceived as racially insensitive.
“We have spoken with the player’s mother and the coaches, who have assured us that there was no ill-intent behind the action shown during the broadcast.”
An official with the Midwest team — which appears to be composed primarily of White players — declined to comment Monday, saying he had been asked by Little League International to refer media inquiries to the youth baseball organization.
“We understand the sensitivities and are in touch with Little League organizers about the situation,” ESPN said in a statement Tuesday morning.
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Taking issue with the Little League International statement was Carolyn Hinds, a Toronto-based film critic and journalist who reacted to the viral footage by tweeting that it was “exactly what we think it is and some people need to be taken to task.”
When reached later Monday by phone, Hinds said Little League officials did not “address the issue” presented in the clip. She wondered if the actions were “something that happens regularly with this team,” and what kind of lessons about racial tolerance were being imparted by the players’ parents.
On Tuesday, Davenport Southeast Little League (SELL), the Iowa-based parent organization for the squad representing the Midwest Region, released a statement in which it said that its players were attempting to “attempt to emulate the white mohawk of the Hawaii team’s star player, who they think is a great baseball player with a very cool hairstyle.”
Identifying the Black child in question as second baseman Jeremiah Grise, the organization stated that ESPN’s cameras “did not show the boys putting stuffing on the heads of multiple players and of Jeremiah laughing and loving his new ‘look.’ “
SELL shared footage from the game of Grise, with the substance on his head, laughing and cheering.
“We are in no way trying to minimize the racial insensitivity of the boys’ actions and apologize for any harm this video has caused,” SELL continued. “We have spoken to the boys to help educate them on why it was inappropriate — which none of them had realized or understood at the time. They understand it now, providing them a life lesson they will carry forward.”
As with some other observers, Hinds had found several elements of the scene jarring, including the use of a material that closely resembled cotton — conjuring associations with slaveholding plantations in the United States and in her native Barbados — and the lack of “respect for his bodily autonomy.”
“As a Black person, and a Black woman, just the whole idea of someone putting cotton in any Black person’s hair immediately upset me,” Hinds said. “For us, the history of cotton in and of itself is tumultuous.” In addition, she asserted, Black people are “very sensitive about who touches our hair.”
For another online commentersthe sight of the child’s hair having the material attached to it struck a deeply personal chord.
Khari Thompson, a reporter at Boston sports radio station WEEI, explained by phone Monday that while growing up near Chicago in northwest Indiana, he was one of the few Black kids in his various classrooms.
“I was used to standing out for how different I looked, how different my hair looked, and people would try to touch it, play around with it when I’d ride on the school bus,” he said. “It got to a point where people would try to hide loose change in my hair.”
“I just kind of took it,” he added, “because I felt very alone in my situation.”
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Those experiences gave Thompson a huge amount of sympathy for the child in the clip, and for the 31-year-old reporter, it did not matter much if, as Little League officials suggested, white teammates not seen on camera were undergoing similar treatment.
“To a White kid, sticking cotton in your hair — what imagery and history does that evoke?” Thompson asked. “Yeah, sure, it’s fun. It’s nothing. But that’s not the case for somebody like me or somebody like him. … When you are the one person that looks like you and has hair like you, it carries a different meaning.”
“It’s on the adults to do something about that,” he added, “and it’s really distressing to see … that nobody did anything about that. That’s horrifying to me.”
ESPN announcer Karl Ravech appeared to have a different reaction to what he was seeing.
“That’s just Little Leaguers being Little Leaguers right there,” Ravech said of the scene.
Hinds faulted the producers of the telecast for not cutting away once it became apparent what was happening.
“They don’t look at these situations,” she said, “and step outside of themselves and say, ‘Is this a problem?’ They are not thinking to themselves, ‘If this was my kid, my friend’s kid, my niece, would I be okay with this?’ ”
The Midwest team is back in action on Tuesday, when it takes on the Southwest Region squad in the tournament’s consolation bracket.
“The Little League World Series has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience for our boys and we hope everyone’s focus can return to their great play, teamwork and sportsmanship on the field,” SELL said in its statement Tuesday. “We ask everyone, including the media and online provocateurs, to please let these 12-year-olds be 12-year-olds.”