What seemed like a high school player 'flipping off' sets off a photo firestorm

A Chicago Tribune photojournalist says another newspaper’s single photograph of a star high school basketball player seeming to “flip off” the opposing team’s fans was taken out of context. And Tribune photographer Scott Strazzante released all of his raw images capturing the incident as proof that the player did nothing wrong.

Now, the photographer who posted the image that caused an online firestorm, and nearly cost the player a chance to play in a tournament, says he should not have used the image.

Stevenson High’s star player Jalen Brunson was in the process of scoring a Illinois state semifinal record 56 points when he sank what would have been a three-point shot. The basket was waived off as a foul. Brunson raised his hands in protest. Photographers captured the moment. This is how the Journal Star’s website sports blog played the image under the headline “Excellence Soured by Poor Sportsmanship.”

By Saturday, the photo had taken on a life if its own. The Journal Star’s Executive Sports Editor Kirk Wessler wrote:

“Even if the refs missed it and, therefore, didn’t whistle him for a technical foul, this is unacceptable. What Brunson did in the heat of the moment doesn’t diminish his talent, and it doesn’t make his performance any less remarkable. But he diminished himself, and he served up on a silver platter a reason for thousands of people to go away thinking the worst of him as a person. It was, unfortunately, a classless exclamation point and made the night unforgettable for all the wrong reasons.”

Peoria Journal Star Digital Editor Adam Gerik told me that photographer Ron Johnson said he captured one frame of Brunson’s protest. He didn’t even know what he had until he began editing the evening's photos. “We published the photo on the blog and Ron published it on his Twitter page. We didn’t publish it in print because we didn’t think it was appropriate for the newspaper."

Based on the photo from the Journal Star, video of the game and other photos, Illinois High School Association Executive Director Marty Hickman suspended Brunson from the Saturday game, which would be played for third place in the tournament. Minutes before the game began, the association's board of directors overturned the suspension.

Brunson’s father, Rick Brunson a former NBA player, said his son has never been called for a technical foul “in his life.” He said his son was being vilified for something he had not done.

After the game, Jalen complicated things when he tweeted, “Completely an accident just frustration.” Then he deleted that tweet and later he posted a note saying:

Monday morning, Chicago Tribune's Strazzante released 20 frames that he fired off sitting next to Johnson courtside. The Tribune’s images seem to show that if the player did “flip the finger” at the crowd, it was for no more than a fraction of a second.

“The 20 frames were captured in less than three seconds,” Strazzante told me. “My camera captures 10 frames per second. For these images, first to last, it was less than three seconds. I didn’t see anything that looked like somebody flipping off the crowd when I was seeing it live. It was just another player upset with a play.” When he started to edit his pictures, Strazzante said, “I did a double take. I thought that must have been a mistake, it was unintentional. I have seen plenty of players flipping off crowds in my career, this was not one of them.”

Strazzante said he did not send the photo to the Tribune photo desk until a controversy blew up over the Journal Star’s image.

Gerik says the Journal Star only had one image because of the way the paper’s strobe system is set up at the arena. “We can capture about one shot per second with the system we use there.”

Now, video has emerged so you can see what happened for yourself.

Based on the video, the fingers seem to have been extended for about one-fifth of a second.

Monday afternoon, Johnson, the Journal Star photographer, posted a note on Strazzante’s Facebook page:

“Should I have put my image of Jalen Brunson's gesture during Friday's semifinal game on social media? Probably not. It was a judgment call between myself and our sports editor who wanted it online. The caption was questionable. Was he directing his gesture to fans or reacting simply to the call? Intentional or just a reactionary gesture in the heat of the moment. I admit that I didn't have the answers at the time, nor did I analyze the situation frame by frame. If I had the choice to decide again, I would not edited the image for the web because I don't have the answers to those questions. My intent was never make an opinion or judgment on the player and the gesture he did during the game, and am sorry for any harm the photo may have caused to him and his family.”

Strazzante says his concern is partly for how this one image, that he believes was taken out of context, will affect the young player. “Brunson’s historic game is now just a sideshow to an online circus,” he wrote in his Chicago Tribune blog. He said the photo will live online forever, but the context behind it may not.

It is impossible to know if the young talented player, frustrated in a heated tournament moment while his team was behind, tossed up his fingers and in the same second caught and controlled himself, or if as Strazzante believes, he tossed his hands in the air and for a fraction of a frustrated animated second extended his two index fingers. But if it was an intentional gesture, not just an unfortunate hand motion, there is no proof that the gesture was aimed at anybody.

The Journal Star photo is accurate. It did happen. It was not manufactured. But accuracy does not equal truth. Accuracy plus context equals truth.

Whatever you believe, the young man did not stand in center court and taunt the opposing crowd. And that is what the single image, without further context, would lead you to believe happened.

Related training: Grappling with Graphic Images

Correction: An earlier version of this story reported the Illinois High School Association based its suspension on the Journal Star photo alone.

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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