Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 13, 2015

Liar, Liar, Pants On Fire

A NOTE TO READERS: As forecast last Sunday, this post was delayed by one day due to previous commitments. Thanks for your patience and continuing support.

So it turns out that Jackie Robinson West, the group of 11 and 12-year olds from Chicago’s South Side that became the first all-African American team to win the U.S. championship at last summer’s Little League World Series, was really more like the team from all of Cook county; or perhaps Cook and the five collar counties surrounding Chicago as well. On Wednesday the team that was celebrated for its displays of sportsmanship as much as for its prodigious offense, the squad that was feted with a parade in its home city and a trip to Washington to meet the President, was stripped of its title in what Little League International president Stephen Keener called “a heartbreaking decision.” An investigation begun in response to complaints from officials of a neighboring Little League district determined that the adults running Jackie Robinson West had added players from areas belonging to adjacent districts and then produced a fake boundary map at the start of last year’s tournament in Williamsport.

The reaction to this news was as predictable as it was swift. After opening with an assertion that the incident proved the Great Game at any level could no longer withstand close scrutiny, a New York Times columnist conflated the sad Little League story with the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez and his history of doping offenses. The headline on the tabloid Boston Herald screamed “Little League, Big Trouble,” while a writer at Forbes questioned how anyone would be able to believe anything about the Little League tournament ever again.

Clearly it’s the end of the world as we know it, and once again our sports are to blame. That’s the second time this year, what with this story coming hard on the heels of the unspeakable evil of the NFL’s Deflategate episode; and it’s only February. What is a sports fan to do?

Well for starters, it might be a good idea to ignore all the hyperventilating. “We have a win-at-all-cost society,” proclaimed Jim Thompson in an interview for the Times column. Thompson is the chief executive of a non-profit organization founded to combat a win-at-all-cost mentality among coaches of youth sports teams; which makes him something of a stakeholder in the existence of the society he describes.

Perhaps what we really have is an ethos in our games that is unchanged, which is to say that winning is obviously important. There is a reason for keeping score, after all. But despite Vince Lombardi’s declaration to the contrary, winning isn’t the only thing; at least not for those of us who call ourselves fans. If it were, the seats would be empty at Wrigley Field in Chicago, at FedEx Field outside of D.C. during the NFL season, and at Madison Square Garden whenever the Knicks step onto the court.

Isn’t it possible that we are not a craven victory-obsessed society but instead a phenomenally open one, in which every public act and far too many private ones are subject to intense scrutiny by anyone with Internet access and a little time on their hands? Maybe there are more cheaters, or maybe there are simply more cheaters being caught. To the extent that’s the case, isn’t that something to be celebrated rather than lamented?

Of course cheating is wrong, but every incident of it that is revealed should not be considered proof that in our raw pursuit of victory we have lost our collective ethical way. Sometimes the sin is the product of a genuine misunderstanding of the rules, the proverbial honest mistake. A phony boundary map strongly suggests that wasn’t the case with the adults in charge of Jackie Robinson West. But even when rule-breaking is intentional, as it usually is, there are degrees of impropriety. That’s why in every game’s rule book there are different penalties for different offenses. Even Dante built nine circles into his Inferno.

The penalties in this case included stripping the team of its championship, suspending the manager and barring the Chicago league from tournament play until two of its executives are replaced; clear evidence that the officials in Williamsport both found the evidence of cheating compelling and considered the offense grave. Not surprising since this isn’t the first time that the Little League tournament has been forced to deal with a team breaking the rules. The team from the Philippines that won the title in 1992 was later disqualified for fielding overage players. The same fate for the same transgression befell the squad from the Bronx that finished third in 2001.

Whenever it occurs there are numerous commentaries on the poor kids who have been victimized by the greed of adults. It’s a fair observation, but it’s also a stretch to proclaim that the Jackie Robinson West players have been scarred for life. Most children are pretty resilient; perhaps especially those who will always have the memories of one magical summer; memories that are likely to last long after this week’s headlines have faded away.

We are all human beings, those of us in the stands and those we watch out on the field or court, rink or course. By definition we are imperfect and utterly fallible. That’s why all of our games have rules and why there are officials at every contest. But our sports are about much more than winning, and those who break the rules in an effort to seize victory will never change that.

Last year’s Little League World Series gave us the adults who have now been penalized, but it also gave us Mo’ne Davis. She didn’t win a championship, but we watched in awe as she forever redefined the phrase “throws like a girl.” The history of the Great Game now includes the story of the Jackie Robinson West team. But that history also has an entire chapter devoted to Jackie Robinson the man. He won but a solitary championship in his ten-year Major League career, yet his chapter is filled with ability and courage, tolerance and grace.

We are human beings, and in our lesser moments cheating proves we are imperfect and will, more often than not, fall short. But at their best moments our games remind us of why striving for that impossible goal of perfection will always be a worthy endeavor. Besides, on Wednesday a moving van pulled out of the Bronx, loaded with equipment and headed for Tampa. Thursday another packed hauler left Yawkey Way in Boston, bound for Fort Myers. In the dead of a brutal winter here in New Hampshire they were twin reminders that spring is coming. It can’t possibly be the end of the world as we know it.


  1. Nice.

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