David J. Neal

David J. Neal: Players in Little League World Series deserve some compensation

It’s the end of the world as we know it when we start talking about paying players in the Little League World Series.

And I feel fine, even if the NCAA and Little League World Series don’t.

Actually, it was Little League World Series CEO Steve Keener who told Yahoo! Sports that at some point — not now, Keener stressed — they might compensate the players helping Keener’s organization make enough money to buy South Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

Such as $60 million over eight years from ESPN, desperate for live programming as all sports networks are. Such as $1.6 million from merchandising, according to a CNBC peek at LLWS’s IRS filing (it’s a, ahem, nonprofit organization). Such as corporate sponsors craving a connection with the romantic innocence increasingly older adults associate with kids playing baseball.

Out of all that, not much directly trickles down to 13-year-old pitcher Mo’ne Davis. Davis’ held-over 15 minutes of fame translated to a gargantuan leap in Little League World Series ratings. She boosted merchandise sales, too. The finalists from Jackie Robinson West, out of a bullet-heavy area of Chicago, galvanized interest from the third-largest TV market.

Little League World Series does send money back to the communities from which its participating teams come. Good is done. It’s not a total Iceberg Slim arrangement.

Nobody’s denying the thrills the Little League World Series provides. What kid good at a sport he/she truly cares about doesn’t want to find out just how good they are?

If there’s a way to measure whether or not you’re the best in town, state, region, country, world, well, get out the tape measure. Let’s play ball.

And even in a reality TV/YouTube era, what kid doesn’t want the chance to appear on TV? Especially if they know their friends and family back home have the popcorn ready with the DVR recording.

Still, Little League World Series and the folks running it — seven six-figure salaries at the top, according to Yahoo — make enough to provide a more direct reward to the young entertainers.

Why shouldn’t they? Maybe it’s the general resentment against those who do a fun task with great skill. But only in sports do we maintain this concept that at a certain age, the athlete should perform for free while somebody else collects all the beaucoup bucks people pay to watch/show them.

(Don’t start with the “before we pay more young athletes, let’s better pay teachers/police/firemen.” I agree that one great teacher does more for the day-to-day life of a community than one great quarterback. I wish our public school teachers could count on better pay with strong administrative support when dealing with knucklehead kids or parents. Police and firemen know each shift could be their last. But failing to properly compensate those public employees has nothing to do with a private company not giving a 12-year-old some of the overflow from the pockets he/she is filling.)

Develop the video game that sucks 5-to-10-year-olds away from Minecraft, and a company will point to a bank vault with “Go play.” When DC Comics fell in love with submissions sent on spec by 13-year-old Jim Shooter, Shooter got paid enough to put a rebuilt engine in his steelworker father’s broken down car.

Co-write a screenplay, as 13-year-old Nikki Reed did (Thirteen), and no producer tells you, “You get to be seen on Entertainment Tonight and TMZ at the red carpet premiere! That’s compensation enough!”

Robert Altman once said his 14-year-old son earned Mike earned more than 10 times more for writing the lyrics to Suicide is Painless, the M*A*S*H theme, than he did for directing the movie. Hopefully, that paid for some good therapy sessions.

Nothing about this seems very hard. How about $1,000 gift cards to Staples or Office Depot or Target for every player in the series? With the first day of school awaiting back home, parents from Hamburger Helper neighborhoods would put Keener on a pedestal and dance around his feet like an Old Testament golden calf. Heck, he’d get that treatment from parents who live in neighborhoods where kids can walk into neighbors’ houses at night just because they’re curious and not black.

Winning the tournament should yield bigger gift cards or maybe special memorabilia — how about each player receiving a glove and ball signed by a Major League Baseball All-Stars at his/her position? That’s the kind of thing that screams “keep it forever” or “sell it on eBay if you need the money.”

Anybody mentioning “more incentive to cheat” needs to shed the Pollyanna view of this event. To get to South Williamsport, there have been documented cases of cheating in the past.

We love to talk about sports teaching values. Clearly, there’s a value to what these kids do each year. Sending them home with a little something more than memories gets that lesson across.

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