Little League International took the right action by stripping Jackie Robinson West of its national title. But how the multimillion-dollar organization found its way to that decision is ridiculous.
The equivalent of a citizen’s arrest was necessary to start the ball rolling against the JRW officials who cheated. And that’s messed up.
Nobody should be put in the position of being a whistleblower when it comes to a child’s game. No Little League coach or official should have to take abuse for pointing out that another team might not have played by the rules. But that’s how the system is set up in Little League.
An organization that says it has an eight-year, $76 million TV deal should have more than the one-bullet investigative power of Barney Fife. This is a big business in desperate need of an enforcement arm.
Little League International president and CEO Stephen Keener told the Sun-Times last week that “our process works.’’ But he also said that, in the organization’s 75-year history, only three incidents involving rules infractions had been acted upon. If he thinks adults haven’t cheated more than three times in 75 years, I’d suggest he attend a Little League game and watch the intensity level of some of the “grownups.’’
Again, let’s not lose sight of what’s most important here: Jackie Robinson West officials doctored the league’s boundaries to allow talented players to join its roster, which is why the team was stripped of its national championship and why its coach was suspended.
Everything that happened in the week since news of the sanctions broke — all the wailing and all the silliness from adults using kids for their own purposes — should pale in the face of that truth. JRW knowingly broke the rules. End of story.
With so much on the line, with big money involved and the huge exposure guaranteed by being on ESPN, you’re almost begging for adults to cheat to put together a great team. In that regard, you can bet JRW isn’t alone.
And that’s where Little League International opens itself up to attack, as it is learning so painfully now. Because Jackie Robinson West was the only team in the World Series that officials investigated (thanks to a whistleblower from Evergreen Park), it allowed supporters of the African-American team to question whether race was a factor. It allowed them to ask why JRW was being singled out. It allowed them to ask why the organization reopened a seemingly closed investigation and whether it is always so dogged when looking at teams.
The bottom line is a two-headed monster: JRW cheated, and Little League International is incredibly haphazard when it comes to overseeing some 7,000 leagues around the world.
So, what to do? Investigating every team around the globe isn’t realistic. But if, as a matter of course, all teams that make it to the Little League World Series are thoroughly investigated to ensure they’ve followed the eligibility rules, this kind of mess can be avoided. Little League International surely has the wherewithal to make that happen.
As others have mentioned, there needs to be an acknowledgement that children on the lower end of the socio-economic scale might come from a different reality than children from wealthier families. They might have to move more often. They might live with friends or distance relatives. Little League International has to be more welcoming and more understanding.
But we have no proof yet that transiency was a factor with JRW. We don’t know if certain kids on the team had nowhere to play in their own neighborhoods or if they were recruited simply because they were so good, which seems more likely, knowing what we know about adults’ burning need to win.
But it’s clear some change is needed from Little League International.
Until then, we’ll have to listen to more protests and more news conferences. In the case of Jackie Robinson West, the adults say they want to protect what the kids accomplished. They say they don’t want the kids to spend the rest of their lives feeling as if they did something wrong.
“Please have mercy on the children,’’ said Jonathan Jackson, national spokesman for the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.
By that, I assume Jackson means the children who didn’t make the JRW team because league officials brought in ringers from outside its boundaries. No? Where are the adults standing up for those poor kids?
And, by the way, where are the adults admitting their mistakes?
Little League International certainly has problems that need fixing, but it is not the problem in the JRW scandal.