The parents of players on the Jackie Robinson West youth baseball team, which was stripped over the 2014 U.S. Little League championship in a residency scandal, have sued the volunteers who ran the team, the rival coaches who turned them in, Little League Baseball, ESPN and commentator Stephen A. Smith.
The story of the all-black JRW team’s journey from the South Side of Chicago to the world championship game captivated the nation in the summer of 2014, but the story unfolding behind the scenes had few heroes, according to the lawsuit filed Thursday in Cook County Circuit Court.
League officials knew ineligible players were on the JRW roster a week after the team’s Cinderella run ended with an 8-4 loss to South Korea, but they did nothing to strip the team of their U.S. title until after they had inked a new deal with ESPN. Two months later, top Little League officials posed with JRW players and President Barack Obama at the White House.
“Little League was aware of the potential residency issues of the children of the JRW Parents, but chose to ignore and/or deliberately conceal these facts in order to garner higher ratings, publicity, and money for defendant Little League,” attorney James Karamanis wrote in the lawsuit.
“Little League deliberately capitalized on the notoriety of the JRW Team and the JRW Parents in order to bolster its corporate image, gain donations and otherwise profit from the unique appeal of the JRW Tournament Team . . . (to) enhance its corporate image to raise, among other things, the value of its television deal with ESPN.”
Karamanis was not available for comment Monday. Victor Henderson, an attorney who represented JRW in a lawsuit against Little League that was dropped in 2015, said he was not involved in the current case.
The lawsuit seeks damages “in excess of $50,000” for intentional infliction of emotional distress, unjust enrichment by ESPN and Little League, and defamation by ESPN and Smith.
Spokesmen for Little League and ESPN said they had not seen the lawsuit and declined to comment Thursday.
The lawsuit also targets the Evergreen Park Athletic Association, one of JRW’s early round opponents, and Chris Janes, the Evergreen Park coach who lodged the initial complaint with Little League. The Chicago Sun-Times was unable to reach Janes.
The lawsuit also names JRW Treasurer Bill Haley, whose mother was club president, claiming he doctored maps to try to head off the controversy in December, after Janes complained that several JRW players lived in the Chicago suburbs. The lawsuit also claims Janes invaded JRW parents’ privacy by searching out their addresses
The league also erred in following up on those complaints — and in erasing JRW’s victories — because officials signed off on residency documents filed by JRW at several points during the playoffs, the lawsuit claims. League rules also say any complaints should have been filed before JRW’s next game.
JRW players and coaches learned they had been disqualified only when the story broke on ESPN, the lawsuit claims. In a February 2015 episode of “First Take,” bombastic commentator Smith defamed JRW parents and coach Darold Butler, whose son also was on the team, the lawsuit alleges.
Smith said parents were involved in falsifying documents and called a producer to show a picture of Butler “like the mugshot it deserves to be treated like.”
Previously, JRW parents appeared to be standing by the Haleys, whose father, Bill Sr., founded the club. The team dropped out of Little League the following season.