Last Wednesday, the governing body of the famous youth baseball program, Little League, punished the reigning U.S. National Champion for geographical recruiting violations, stripping the team of its championship title. The team, Jackie Robinson West, was from South Side Chicago and was composed of 25 boys ages 11-13 years old. The Chicago team was found guilty of manipulating the set boundaries of their program to geographically allow better talent to funnel onto their the team. Little League International went on to suspend Darold Butler, the team’s head coach, and the area’s district administrator, Michael Kelly. But the most severe aspect of the punishment surely is the removal of team’s hard-earned regional and national championships, won by 12-year-old boys who were not even aware of the violation.
The decision must be shocking for the team’s 25 players who impressed Little League’s global audience with equally strong play and sportsmanship. The team became known for deep homeruns as well as coming up with elaborate handshakes with their opponents. Jackie Robinson West showed that good things happen to teams that play hard and have fun as the team won the U.S. Championship before moving on to the international championship were they lost to Seoul, South Korea 8 to 4. Even so, the team was the first Little League with all black players to win the national title.
The situation is additionally tragic considering what the team did for the morale of the entire Chicago metro area. During the team’s amazing championship campaign, the city’s mayor organized game viewing parties that brought the city closer together. Then when the team returned, the entire city celebrated their success and near World Series win with a victory parade. Now Chicago’s Mayor has stated that “the city remains united in its support of these great children and in our hearts, they will always be champions in Chicago.” But for fans and supporters of Jackie Robinson West and Little League Baseball, it is easy to be frustrated and confused.
Furthermore, the team’s success was a hopeful sign for baseball, where black participation has been on a steady decline. According to the New York Times, as of the beginning of the 2014 only 8.3 percent of Major League Baseball players were black, a large drop from 1986 when black participation composed 19 percent of the league.
In an article on Derek Jeter’s website “The Players’ Tribune,” Pittsburgh Pirate’s Center Fielder Andrew McCutchen responded to this decline and the controversial decision to strip Jackie Robinson West of their championship. The 2013 National League Most Valuable Player attributed the dropping numbers to a deeper problem that is affecting low-income kids of all races. McCutchen said of youth baseball, “[It is] a sport that increasingly freezes out kids whose parents don’t have the income to finance the travel baseball circuit.” He asked the audience to consider the disqualified managers not as cheaters who broke the rules but instead as heroes to the Little League players, “who stepped in” and allowed the teams championship run to take place.
In my opinion, Little League’s decision reveals another problem all together, a culture in sports where cheating can be justified if it leads to success. Whether it is in the N.F.L. where the Patriots saw no repercussions for supplying deflated competitively advantageous balls on their way to a Super Bowl or NCAA Football, where recruiting violations involving bribery are said to be commonplace.
The U.S. has developed a culture where as long as it is not done blatantly, cheating or rule bending often goes unpunished. This is a trend that baseball has come to symbolize. At the Major League level, the all-time homerun record is held by Barry Bonds, who was never punished for utilizing performance-enhancing drugs to power his career. Last week Alex Rodriguez, one of baseball’s highest-paid players, apologized to the Yankees for his one year suspension given for his use of human growth hormone. Yet, the American sports audience must ask: would Alex Rodriguez be sorry if he was never caught? Jackie Robinson West could be asked the same question, but I bet the answer would be the same. That is: no way.
America cherishes winning so much more than playing with good sportsmanship and falling short that cheating has reached an elevated moral level. For this reason, I am glad that Little League made a tough decision and decided to strip the U.S. Champions of their trophy.
The ruling is harsh, but it works hard to protect Little League from future coaches who believe that if resulting in victory, bending the rules is justified. It will stand to ensure that when the members of the phenomenal Jackie Robinson West team raise their own children and coach, they will value sportsmanship over any type of victory.
Brandon Green, a pitcher on the Jackie Robinson West team commented that the players were not connected to anything that could have caused them to be stripped of their championship. They maintained, “we do know that we’re champions.” For all of the members of the disciplined team, it is critical to remember that what happened was not their fault, and they are still champions even if it is no longer in writing. The players will always stand as an example of sportsmanship and championship caliber baseball no matter the exterior circumstances.