Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Blame the adults, not the kids, in Little League scandal

Brandon Green, a catcher and pitcher for the Jackie Robinson West Little League baseball team, is embraced by civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson following a press conference that was called after the team learned it would be stripped of their national champion title February 11, 2015 in Chicago.
Brandon Green, a catcher and pitcher for the Jackie Robinson West Little League baseball team, is embraced by civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson following a press conference that was called after the team learned it would be stripped of their national champion title February 11, 2015 in Chicago. Getty Images

The assigning of disgrace should be done with confidence, without reservation. We like it cut and dried. Brian Williams lied. Tiger Woods ran around on his wife. Lance Armstrong cheated. Michael Vick bankrolled dogfights. Alex Rodriguez used steroids. All beyond argument, right? Yes, when we parcel shame onto others, we prefer it be neat and tidy.

The Chicago Little League story is not that.

It is about penalizing kids who did no wrong for the actions of adults. And about whether the punishment fits the crime.

It feels wrong in this case to simply dismissively yell, “Cheaters!” and move on to the next scandal.

You remember Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West team from the Little League World Series in August. Mo’Ne Davis, the girl pitcher from Philadelphia, was getting most of the media attention (and the Sports Illustrated cover), but the more uplifting, heart-tugging tale, for me, was the JRW baseball squad of 11- to 13-year-olds becoming the first black team to win the U.S. championship.

In a sport struggling to attract black players, and from a tough side of a city where too many young black males turn to violence or become victims of it, this team’s victory felt like a larger triumph we could all be proud of.

Millions watched on TV. A local parade was held. The governor made a proclamation. Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the team “the pride of Chicago.” The kids were even honored at the White House by President (and proud Chicagoan) Barack Obama.

On Wednesday, those same kids were stripped of that championship by Little League International.

(Putting a bunch of 12-year-olds on national TV in the first place surely amplifies the imperative to win and thus the temptation to bend rules. But that’s for another column.)

As usual here, the problem with youth sports is the adults.

Sometimes it’s boorish, my-kid-first parents berating coaches or officials. In this case, it is that Jackie Robinson West was found to have improperly expanded its boundaries to include a few kids from neighboring leagues. The team’s coach has been suspended from Little League involvement and a district administrator has been removed from his job for not detecting the issue.

Don’t feel bad for the implicated, responsible-turned-irresponsible adults.

Feel bad for the innocent kids who have had what probably was the highlight of their lives yanked out from under them and replaced by undeserved guilt.

Little League should verify issues of boundaries and birth certificates before its annual showcase tournament, not after the fact. Preventing wrongdoing is so much smarter — and better — than retroactively punishing it. That makes the organizing body as culpable here as JRW officials deciding it was OK to take a few kids from neighboring leagues called South Side, Rosemoor and Roseland.

It should be noted these kids all grew up together, knew each other, and that the complaint to Little League was not from the three neighboring leagues but from an official of a suburban-league team JRW had beaten badly. In fact the Chicago Sun-Times quoted a Rosemoor coach saying, “We have solidarity on this issue. We are supporting [JRW] to the end. They didn’t set out to deceive anyone.”

No matter. Rules are rules, and we ought not get too loose with separating the bending from the breaking, or suggest that the breaking is not always cheating.

I get the point of boundaries. I get why Little League guards its integrity. I try to put myself in the shoes of the Las Vegas team that was beaten by the Chicago team in the U.S. championship game, and there is no other conclusion than to think JRW was wrong for not adhering strictly to its boundaries.

But I also think that on a scale of wrongdoing, this one pales in comparison with fudging birth certificates and intentionally using overage players. That is cheating without a gray area.

I understand Little League disciplining the involved adults for this, but it seems harsh to take a national championship away from kids of proper age who did nothing wrong, and who earned what they won on the field.

The shame here belongs all to the grownups.

The boys can still feel proud of what they did.

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