They were greeted as neither heroes nor villains, just simply what they are: young girls who made a regrettable mistake on social media and were punished for it.
After a weekend that one parent described as “an emotional roller coaster,” the Atlee girls softball team flew back to their home town Sunday and were welcomed back warmly at Richmond (Va.) International Airport with several dozen cheering family members, friends and other supporters bearing colorful signs with messages like “All Together Love Embrace Encourage” and “You are all stars to us.”
The 12 players on the team had just returned from Kirkland, Wash., where they had made national headlines for the wrong reasons in the Junior League Softball World Series for 12-to-15-year-olds. A team photo of the girls flipping off their opponent had gone viral after being posted on Snapchat, resulting in their disqualification from the championship.
“I think it’s amazing,” Matt Pastore, whose 14-year-old daughter Bella, plays first base on the team, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “It shows the community and the parents we have. … 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.”
The social media mistake was a tough lesson to learn. The home office of the Little League World Series disqualified the team because of the Snapchat image in which six players were extending their middle fingers along with the caption indicating that it was meant for the Kirkland team, which Atlee beat on Friday.
When Atlee coaches learned of the post, it was deleted and they brought the team together to apologize in person, a mea culpa that Atlee’s coach said was accepted and treated as a teachable moment for all the kids.
“We thought we had tried to do the right thing and make this thing right,” Scott Currie, the manager who has two daughters on the team, told the Times-Dispatch. “They didn’t give us a chance to defend ourselves, didn’t do any investigation whatsoever of the situation.”
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Kevin Fountain, a Little League spokesman, said in a statement to the Times-Dispatch that the team had violated the league’s “policies regarding unsportsmanlike conduct.”
Atlee officials think there’s more to the story and Atlee Little League President Jamie Batten, called on Little League International to “fully investigate” what happened and added that not all of some “unpleasant interactions … were on the part of those on the Atlee softball team.”
Atlee went on to win, 1-0, in a game in which a Kirkland player and coach were ejected for stealing signals. With Atlee’s disqualification, Kirkland advanced to the final and lost Saturday to a squad from Poland, Ohio. Atlee had played Poland in pool play, which meant that Atlee had beaten both finalists. Batten added that he was “not defending” what the Atlee players did. “Our kids were absolutely wrong in what they did, but they paid a heavy price for it.”
That price included becoming a national story.
“It’s unfortunate we had to go through this experience in front of the world,” said Chris Mardigian, who also coaches the team along with her husband, John.
“The last 24 hours have been pretty rough,” John Mardigian said. “There’s been a lot of tears.”