Cries of Racism Against Little League Go Foul
Suddenly, Chicago’s feel-good story of 2014 doesn’t feel so good any more. Instead, it feels awful. On Wednesday, Jackie Robinson West (JRW), the all-star, all African-American Little League team from the city’s South Side that captured the hearts of Chicagoans by making it all the way to the Little League World Series championship game before losing to South Korea, was stripped of its U.S. title for knowingly using ineligible players.
According to a release by Little League International, JRW used a “falsified boundary map for their 2014 tournament,” allowing them to get players who otherwise would not have been eligible to be on the team. In other words, the coaches cheated.
Needless to say, this is a major bummer for almost everyone, but especially for the kids, who played their hearts out during their special tournament run. Little League International President Stephen Keener said as much in announcing the penalty.
“This is a heartbreaking decision.” Keener said. “What these players accomplished on the field and the memories and lessons they have learned during the Little League World Series tournament is something the kids can be proud of, but it is unfortunate that the actions of adults have led to this outcome.”
But Keener said something even more important.
“For more than 75 years, Little League has been an organization where fair play is valued over the importance of wins and losses,” he noted, calling the penalty “a necessary decision to maintain the integrity of the Little League program. No team can be allowed to attempt to strengthen its team by putting players on their roster that live outside their boundaries.”
Hard to argue with that, right? Well, apparently not. In this day and age an admittedly tough lesson about honesty, integrity, and abiding by rules of fair play is too much for some people to stomach.
And, this being Chicago -- home of the Rev. Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow PUSH Coalition -- it took a mere couple of hours before a bad situation was made worse by some injecting race into the lineup.
“Why do you think Jackie Robinson West was created? Kids like these weren’t allowed to play in other leagues, so they formed their own,” fumed Chicago Alderman Carrie Austin, suggesting, falsely, that the Little League system is somehow racially segregated. “And now, after they whipped your butts, you’re going to turn around and challenge it on a technicality.”
Across town, at a press conference organized by the aforementioned Rev. Jackson, the mother of one of JRW’s star players also injected race into the issue.
“It is amazing to me that whenever African-Americans exceed the expectations, that there's always going to be fault that is going to be found in what it is that we do,” said Venisa Green, mother of outfielder Brandon Green.
“This is persecution,” Jackson lamented. “It’s not right. It’s unnecessary. It’s not fair.”
“I can't help but wonder and question if the same thing would have been done with another team, another place, another race,” added Father Michael Pfleger, the activist pastor at St. Sabina who is known for, among other things, being singled out in 2004 by Barack Obama as one of his key “spiritual mentors.”
The prize for this sort of thing went, not surprisingly, to Karen Lewis, head of the Chicago Teachers Union. Attempting to sound outraged, but actually coming across as outrageous, Lewis demanded that the Little Leaguers who benefited from the chicanery of their coaches be rewarded financially. “I stand with parents, youth, teachers and community members who are outraged by this Black History month smack in the face by people with no regard for the young lives impacted by this,” Lewis said in a written statement. “Jackie Robinson West should retain its title, be issued an apology, and every player should receive full-ride scholarships for college sponsored by the people who have humiliated these boys, their families and their community.”
The obvious truth, which somehow eluded Ms. Lewis, is that the people who humiliated the boys, their families, and the community were the coaches who cheated.
If you want to argue the penalty was too severe, fine. But Little League coaches from Rhode Island and Las Vegas -- teams that lost to JRW’s ringer-stacked team and that never got to visit the White House or be feted and lauded and given parades -- do not agree.
“It's disappointing. [I’m] very disappointed that someone would stoop that low to do something like that," said Dave Belisle, who coached the Rhode Island team that was eliminated by Chicago, 8-7, in the second round of the U.S. bracket. “We had a great opportunity to do something wonderful and do it the right way, and they didn’t.”
Arguing now that JRW received an overly harsh punishment because of the players’ race only compounds the transgression. It is unfounded and despicable. The only conceivable implication of that defense is that JRW should be held to a different, lower standard because of their race. It’s hard to imagine a greater slander against the actual Jackie Robinson, who only asked -- no, he demanded -- a level playing field.
But the rules of the sport are -- and must remain -- colorblind. To do anything less would be to compromise the integrity of the game. Once upon a time, Americans knew this, regardless of their politics.
"He was a therapist for the masses by succeeding, by doing it with such style, flair and drama,” a famous Chicagoan once said of Robinson. “He helped level baseball off, to make it truly a game for black and white, with excellence the only test for success.”
The speaker of those sage words was none other than Jesse Jackson.
Correction: An earlier version of this column misidentified Chicago Alderman Carrie Austin as Carrie West.