If you have ever been heavily involved at youth sports at any level, you will feel a sad tug of familiarity about the story of the Little League baseball team from Chicago that was stripped of its American championship.
Most adults who coach youth sports do it for all the right reasons. But a few will cheat to win.
I have coached more than a dozen youth teams in three different sports. I can tell you from firsthand experience this is a fact: Some adults live vicariously through the kids they parent and coach so much they will do just about anything not to lose.
They will have their players fake injuries. They will teach 10-year-olds how to flop to draw a foul. They will bend rules until they snap to acquire more talent.
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And when those adults cheat to win, it is the kids who lose – no matter whether the adults get caught or not.
These adults got caught, in a very high-profile case. The adults involved got so into trying to win a Little League World Series that they ultimately humiliated the very kids they were trying to help.
If all the allegations are true, the kids from Chicago were the ones who acted like mature adults. The grownups who actually composed the Chicago team by falsifying boundaries so better players could be gathered outside their geographic footprint? Those were the ones behaving like spoiled kids.
So now Jesse Jackson is threatening a lawsuit and Chicago’s mayor is trying to talk Little League officials into a lesser punishment. But the punishment here fits the crime and should not be changed. Investigations showed that the rules were broken, and that can’t be ignored.
The team in question is composed of all black players. But I don’t believe this is a racist situation. I believe it is a cheating situation.
Don’t you feel sorry for the kids, though?
They were 11 to 13 years old and had been having the time of their lives. They were playing baseball and playing it beautifully. And if you are one of those kids and an adult tells you that you it is legal for you to be on this team – even if you don’t live next door to any of your proposed teammates – what are you going to say?
Officials for the Chicago-based team, called Jackie Robinson West, had falsified boundaries and added players from nearby suburban towns to create a “super team,” according to the Little League investigation. The all-star squad had playoff wins in Illinois by scores like 43-2 and 29-2.
Eventually, the team would win the American title before losing to a squad from South Korea in the international championship game in Williamsport, Pa., last August. But even that hardly dimmed the feel-good story aspect. The players, mostly from Chicago’s crime-plagued South Side, would later visit the White House and be cheered by thousands at a rally in Chicago.
Now it has all come crashing down. An investigative reporter for a Chicago website unearthed the relevant facts that rendered the players ineligible, with the help of a whistleblower from a rival Little League.
The Little League organization itself eventually did a thorough enough investigation to conclude that the Jackie Robinson West team was, indeed, too good to be true.
Little League baseball isn’t travel baseball – you can’t just pull kids from anywhere to create an all-star squad. You’re supposed to play “our kids vs. your kids.” It’s not “our kids and all the other kids who we wish lived in our neighborhood vs. your kids.”
President Barack Obama, who had honored Jackie Robinson West with a White House ceremony after the team’s run in the Little League World Series, said Wednesday that he continues to be proud of the team. He blames the problem on “dirty dealing” by adults, according to a White House spokesman.
It wasn’t the first Little League controversy. In 2001, a team from New York had an amazing pitcher named Danny Almonte who could just mow down opposing batters. And no wonder – Almonte was 14 years old, had aged out of the system and was pitching anyway.
There are many other examples in many other youth sports, and mostly it comes down to adults and, to use the White House phrase again, “dirty dealing.”
This sort of thing stains the name of all the good coaches and parents out there – and there are millions of them. And it stains the name of Jackie Robinson, too, a heroic baseball player who broke the color line in major league baseball.
I am glad the adults got caught. But I am sorry the kids have to suffer the consequences.