The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mo’ne Davis, magnanimous in the face of insult

Pennsylvania’s Mo’ne Davis delivers in the fifth inning against Tennessee at the Little League World Series tournament last year in South Williamsport, Pa. (Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press)
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Mo’ne Davis first landed on my radar a week or so before her Little League team, the Taney Dragons of Philadelphia, hit the Little League championship playoffs. Her hair, braided with extensions to protect it from months of summer baseball diamond dirt, and her steely hazel-eyed gaze as she pitched a shutout with a 70 mph fastball, reminded me of a pair of black teen girl athletes I had watched growing up: the Williams sisters. So I started paying attention as she signed autographs, gave triple the number of interviews as the other members of her team, and — astoundingly — appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Previously ambivalent about most things baseball-related, I couldn’t help but be drawn to Davis, the lone girl among gangly tween boys, clearly being groomed as a supernova among them.

But what comes of a bright-hot star when she ages out of the sport that made her famous? At 13, her eligibility for this summer’s Little League season has ended. Unlike the Williams sisters, the public won’t watch her weather the rest of her adolescence while competing in televised matches. And though Davis has expressed interest in playing college basketball and ultimately pursuing a professional athletic career, college is still at least five years off for the phenom. By now, it would have made sense for her popularity to have waned a bit.

Instead, something unprecedented is happening with Davis. She has appeared on “The Tonight Show,” shown up on the cover of Sports Illustrated, played in the NBA celebrity game during All-Star weekend and scored an endorsement with Chevrolet. Eight months after her last Little League season has ended, updates about her career keep being announced. She’s writing a book. She has designed custom tennis shoes for charity. She has spent time and filmed with historic female pitcher Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, one of four women to break gender barriers in the Negro Leagues, who reportedly called Davis “the best thing since food,” after seeing her pitch in the Little League World Series.

Perhaps because of the serendipitous timing of her last Little League season coinciding with the Always “Like a Girl” campaign, as well as Davis’s pioneering position as the first African American girl believed to play in the Little League World Series, the teen has become the face of a feminist movement. As such, it’s harder to let her return to the anonymity of middle and high school. The stakes are too high. Since the Always campaign hinges on the premise that puberty is when girls lose their self-confidence, as well as when “like a girl” becomes a pointed insult, we’re all invested in shoring up Davis’s confidence. Many of us want her star to keep ascending, for ourselves and the little girls in our lives.

Of course, not everyone feels this way, as was evidenced by last week when Bloomsbury University baseball player Joey Casselberry lost his team position for tweeting disparagingly about Davis. In response to news that the Disney Channel will produce a film based on Davis’s life, Casselberry tweeted, “WHAT A JOKE. That slut got rocked by Nevada.”

Having grown up watching the Williams sisters, I wasn’t too surprised by white male backlash against the young Davis. After all, Casselberry’s tweet comes on the heels of Serena Williams’s triumphal return to the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., which she and Venus had boycotted since 2001 — incidentally, the year Davis was born — precisely because of the slurs, racial epithets, accusations of match-fixing and boos they endured.

The Williams sisters are certainly not the only young black female athletes to endure verbal abuse and worse. Resentment of all types seems to follow black female athletes. When Alice Coachman became the first black woman from any nation to win an Olympic gold medal in 1948, her hometown mayor in Albany, Ga., refused to shake her hand at an official ceremony. Coachman is later reported to have said, “We had segregation, but it wasn’t any problem for me because I had won. That was up to them, whether they accepted it or not.” 

Davis seems to belong to the Alice Coachman school of self-assured responses to public antagonism. She hasn’t just publicly forgiven Joey Casselberry; she has also made an appeal to the university to reinstate him. Davis explained on ESPN’s “SportsCenter”: “Everyone makes mistakes and everyone deserves a second chance. I know right now he’s really hurt and I know how hard he worked to get where he is. I mean, I was pretty hurt on my part but I know he’s hurting even more.”

Of course, Davis’s position is laudable. And of course, she shouldn’t have to assume such a position. But her forgiving stance places her at the helm of the narrative. Casselberry now relies on her kindness and magnanimity if he’s to have any hope of ever being reinstated as a player — and that isn’t likely, as Bloomsbury is “standing firm” on its decision.

Davis, without a high-profile sport in which to compete, must cast as long an arc and court as little controversy as possible if she hopes to eventually transition from youth phenom to formidable adult athlete. Between now and her own college experience, she could face any number of challenges that may threaten to derail her career. But her endorsements, her constantly rising public profile and her grace under pressure — a trait the Casselberry incident only serves to underscore — provide her a level of long-term support that makes beefing with a thoughtlessly cruel college athlete unnecessary. Public favor is everything to a girl in Mo’ne Davis’s position, and it seems that she is in no danger of losing hers any time soon.