To paraphrase the ESPN “30 for 30” sports documentary opening: “What if I told you that a sport based on lying, cheating and rule bending worked perfectly fine as long as brown kids and fans paid the price?”
That title would never get past the editing room, and yet, stripping the Jackie Robinson West All-Stars team of its Little League World Series title for cheating can’t be described any other way.
The team’s loss of a championship and vacated wins is not only another horrible reminder of the racial politics of American sports but a blatantly obvious lesson to kids that cheating is OK as long as you have the right money and branding on your side.
America, or the remaining part of America that still cares about baseball, fell in love with the Jackie Robinson West team last year when out of nowhere it won the Little League U.S. Championship and gave American sports news two desperately needed narratives. First, that despite the gloom and doom and declining numbers, there was still a place for African-Americans in baseball; and second, that there was something going on with young black men out of Chicago that didn’t involve guns, death or crime. And that story continued, until this week.
The Evergreen Park League team, which Jackie Robinson trounced 43-2 on its way to a U.S. championship, made a couple of calls to Little League International accusing the All-Stars of violating residency boundaries for players. In other words, the Jackie Robinson West players were a “superteam,” which had an unfair advantage.
Little League International, acting with a swiftness and severity that should embarrass the NBA, NFL and NCAA managed to conduct an investigation, determine who was at fault and strip a bunch of kids of their championship because grown-ups cheated. This never should have happened. Minor children should not have to suffer a crushing loss of their title because grown-ups cheated, and there are other ways the cheating parents and coaches could be punished without causing the kids to suffer.
The sports myth in America is that whether you’re Jesse Owens, Rudy or even the Average Joes, whatever your social class, race or background, when you get onto that field or court or arena it’s a meritocracy. The cream will rise to the top, the best players succeed and cheaters get weeded out before the clock hits double zero. Has this ever been totally true in American sports? No. But if the Chicago team’s namesake proved anything 50 years ago it’s that no matter what shenanigans are pulled in the game, the good guys should win out.
The racial context of this punishment is jarring enough. The Jackie Robinson West team is the first all African-American team to win the U.S. championship and suddenly the league decides to flip through the rulebooks? Unfortunately, increased scrutiny on all-black teams seems to be the norm for Little League International. Just ask the Ugandan Little League Team that has been blocked from competing in the United States and Europe twice in the last few years on technicalities that other teams have openly flouted for years.
When the Jackie Robinson West players look back on this debacle, all they’ll have learned is that cheating is fine as long as there’s money to be made, you don’t get caught, and if you do, the least powerful people end up suffering for it. Is Little League USA going to investigate every team that played in this year’s tournament? Is it going to vacate wins from the “whistleblowing” Evergreen Park League that may have broken the same boundary rules three years ago? Better yet, will it return sponsorships, money and ticket sales to fans who attended these games with a “cheating” team they failed to identify?
Of course they won’t, just like cheaters in in big money high-school, college and professional sports seldom get their comeuppance. Didn’t we just watch two weeks of “Deflategate” coverage where the New England Patriots were accused of breaking the rules again? But Tom Brady is the golden boy of a multi-billion dollar league, so even if NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell found a box of pressure gauges, a can of stick-um and a receipt for 30 Nerf Footballs from Dick’s Sporting Goods in Brady’s locker he wouldn’t dare take back that Lombardi Trophy.
You never want to give kids the impression that cheating is OK. But you know what’s worse than kids thinking cheating is OK? When they learn that only certain cheaters get in trouble, but if you have the right money or fame or skin color you get a free pass.
If Americans really cared about cheating and keeping sports as a real example to kids of hard work paying off, the solution is right in front of us. Everyone from the National Little League to the NFL to the NCAA would crack down on all cheating equally, no matter the color, the money involved or the prestige gained. And punishments would be levied against those responsible, instead of just those who are the most visible and vulnerable.