by Dante Zappala
The wooden chairs in the courtrooms at City Hall are harder than cement. I fruitlessly tried to find some comfort in one. My legs were pretty well shot. I had just strung together a set of runs to mimic the stress of the marathon – 10 quality miles one day and then out for 17 more the next. It’s a training model that relies on building cumulative fatigue over several days to prepare the body rather than the sudden jolt of a single run.
It was on this third day of merciful rest that I found myself shifting in every direction as I waited to hear my fate as a potential juror on a civil case. The upshot of sitting through jury selection was that I got to read the entire New York Times, which carried that day not one but two articles on the Little League team from Philadelphia.
It’s a testament to what this team’s run meant – not just to our city but to the country. Their gutty performances were flat out fun to watch. They inspired people young and old. And they also sparked frank conversations, both public and private, about gender, race, access, and socioeconomics.
Yet there was another conversation that I was having with my friends, some of them close to the team. The question was: “Is all of this attention too much?”
I have traditionally found the Little League World Series overdone. ESPN pays millions of dollars for the broadcast rights and it is out to convert that investment into profit. It’s not a public service they are providing by putting it on television. The coverage of this particular iteration of the tournament became so large that, at some point, the only thing left that it had to consume was itself.
I’m cautious of these events in general. I was part of a media circus back in 2005 when I helped organize demonstrations in front of President Bush’s ranch down in Crawford, Texas to protest the war in Iraq. That story of the mother of a fallen soldier protesting the legitimacy of the war garnered top headlines for a good month.
Ultimately, we succeeded because we advanced the conversation for our cause. But it came with a price. In my time there, I saw firsthand how a press frenzy can create and, simultaneously, destroy both people and truth in their quest to construct and maintain a certain narrative that will keep folks watching.
Looking through this lens of experience at the exponentially compounding excitement surrounding the Taney crew gave me pause. The real question for me was not if the press and the public were heaping too much attention on kids who never sought it. I felt that they were. I wanted to know when these outlets would have enough sense to back off and say, “Just let the kids play.”
It’s clear that the coaches and the parents do an excellent job of providing insulation. The Anderson Monarchs program that many of the players come from is built on teaching the very principles that would prepare them for something as spectacular as this moment. Make no mistake–the Taney team has exceptionally qualified and capable adults leading them.
And I appreciate that childhood is simply not what it used to be. Growing up in a digital world where the assumption is that bits of information can reach anybody on the planet in an instant is much different to what I knew. With that comes a new norm where children’s talents are on display for an ever widening audience.
Still, knowing that today’s media acts mostly in its own self-interest, my instinct is to want to shield them from it. I run with a 12 year old who is a two time national champion. He is, in essence, one of the best little league runners in the country. But by and large, nobody knows who he is. And I’m thankful for that. He’s a sweet kid with a lot of charm who is also prone to the appropriate amount of silliness and nonsense you would expect of someone his age. When we were on the field together during the Penn Relays, he was the one seeking to get his picture taken with the accomplished professionals. That’s probably how it should be. He’s at the top of his class, but he’s looking up rather than down.
Not that we should avoid the spotlight at all costs. It can be a powerful story-maker that inspires, leads to change and calls for justice. The story of this ball club will resonate for years to come. The true impact may never be measured, but it’s clearly a ground shift.
But we also know that the spotlight can be a desperate projection of our own unfulfilled desires and ambitions. It is a highly potent yet completely unregulated weapon. More times than not, it is wielded to support someone’s bottom line.
That’s why the bright lights don’t fade – they simply shift to the next spectacle. This leaves shadows. As our protest in Crawford began to devolve, Hurricane Katrina hit, and in a blink, it was over. I know people who never emerged from that darkness. They became something else, almost unrecognizable. Nine years after the fact, they are still trapped beneath the peak of those four weeks in August.
But I sense that the Taney kids are doing something even more special than throwing shutouts and hitting home runs. I don’t see them prizing the spotlight just because we thrust them there. Their success landed them in the center of our world, perhaps prematurely, yet they seem to be redefining for us what that means.
The accomplishments of this team will continue to be acknowledged. And they should be, for what they did was not only exciting, it was historically and socially significant. There is mutual value for the press and the team in keeping it going.
I think of the cumulative fatigue model. I’m sure they are all feeling it. Yet I see them turning it from debt into savings. Eventually, they’ll pack the experience of Williamsport into storage. Preserved there, it can age properly while the children take on the next moment that presents itself. I am familiar enough with the people and the institutions that got them there to know that they will keep these kids looking up.
Ultimately, we can’t regulate the spotlight and who it chooses, but people can decide what to do with it while they are there. For our sake, it seems, this team has chosen to flatten the contrast where the light shines and make the shadows disappear.