The gesture was broadcast live during Tuesday night’s game against the Miami Marlins as former outfielder Doug Glanville, now an analyst for NBC Sports Chicago, discussed the team’s resurgent offense. A bearded fan in the background formed his hand into an upside-down “okay” sign, holding it next to Glanville’s head until the camera cut to a graphic.
To many viewers, the gesture was reminiscent of one recently adopted as a symbol of white power flashed by far-right militia members and by the terrorist charged with killing 51 Muslim worshipers in New Zealand.
Epstein said Wednesday that the team acted quickly to keep the fan away from the ballpark. “We’ve made clear how egregious and unacceptable that behavior is, and there’s no place for it in our society, in baseball and certainly no place in Wrigley Field,” Epstein told reporters.
Glanville applauded the move in a statement, saying that the team "displayed sensitivity to how the implications of this would affect me as a person of color.”
The case marks the latest high-profile emergence of the hand symbol and suggests yet again how thoroughly troubling language and memes pushed by the alt-right and adopted by hate groups have infiltrated American culture. But such gestures, which can run the gamut from ironic jokes to long-running games to outright symbols of intolerance, are also notoriously difficult to interpret.
Some suggested the fan might have been referencing a once-popular contest called the “Circle Game," but Cubs’ management said the use of such a weighted symbol behind a black broadcaster couldn’t be ignored.
“If it is believed to be the Circle game, then this person made a bad judgment call by using a symbol associated with racism above an African American reporter’s head while he’s doing his job on live TV,” Julian Green, a team spokesman, told WGN9. “This is something we are not going to drop.”
The “okay” hand gesture as a symbol of white intolerance apparently started as a joke by trolls on the 4chan message board in early 2017, as The Washington Post’s Eli Rosenberg and Abby Ohlheiser reported. The idea, according to message boards uncovered by BuzzFeed News, was to trigger liberals and trick the media by pretending the widely used hand signal had a secret racist meaning.
But as the tongue-in-cheek movement grew, the gesture was appropriated by those who really did use it as a sign of white supremacy. It’s now become ubiquitous at far-right gatherings, the Southern Poverty Law Center notes, making it nearly impossible to untangle its ironic use from those meaning it as a straightforward slur. That’s actually the idea.
“The point of the stunt would be to get liberals wound up, so they can then claim that liberals are just imagining things,” noted Salon writer Amanda Marcotte in September. “That was what the OK symbol was literally invented to do: Both serve at a white supremacist symbol and also one that is just ordinary-enough looking that when liberals expressed outrage, the white supremacist could play the victim of liberal hysteria.”
Even that level of nuance, however, seemed lost in March when the hand gesture was flashed in a New Zealand courtroom by Brenton Tarrant, an Australian accused of attacking two mosques after posting a racist, Islamophobic manifesto.
The fact that the fan on Tuesday used the symbol behind Glanville, who is black, only adds to the suggestion that it was meant as a racist gesture. It comes at a delicate moment for the Cubs, who have faced backlash after racist and Islamophobic emails sent and received by Joe Ricketts, the billionaire patriarch of the family who owns the franchise and Wrigley Field, were published in February. Ricketts has since apologized and his family has noted that he plays no active role in team management.
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