Competition obscures spirit of Little League

Cheating and sports go together much more than they should. Most cases deal with professional teams, but recently we saw a team—made up of athletes that aren’t legally allowed to drive a car yet—caught for cheating. Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West Little League baseball team was stripped of its national title for violating strict rules about having players from outside district boundaries. The motive was to get better players and to create an all-star team. The ploy worked as JRW won round after round, becoming the first all-black team to win the national title. Even though they lost to the Seoul, South Korea team, JRW beat out the tournament’s superstar and the first Little Leaguer to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated––pitcher Mo’ne Davis––in the United States championship.

Little League Baseball has certainly changed over the years from being a league in which children learned the game and played for fun. It continues to be a community-based event where coaches and many officials volunteer, but the perceptions have changed dramatically. No more can we say they simply play for the love of the game.

Ever since 1953 when the first Little League World Series game was televised by CBS, we began to see the game strained by high-stakes publicity. Broadcasted nationally by ESPN since 2007, the tournament has become more than just a child’s friendly game of baseball. Teams from all over the country now compete against each other to qualify for the knockout rounds in Williamsport, Pennsylvania before facing teams from the rest of the world.

This über-competitiveness has pressured coaches and managers to assemble teams like college or professional teams, recruiting the best players from wherever talent is. To cover up their motives, JRW submitted a falsified district boundary map to the tournament directors, stretching their borders to encompass the players they added to the roster. The result led to JRW’s vacated wins and forfeiture of their national title.

This was only the third time in the 68-year tournament history that a team vacated wins as a result of a rules violation. The first occurred in 1992 when a team from the Philippines violated the age and residency rules. The second and most notable case happened in 2001 when Danny Almonte and his team from the Bronx, New York lost all their accomplishments by violating the age rules. Almonte was one of several players to provide a fake birth certificate. He and his teammates were actually 14-year-olds in a league with a cutoff at 12.

While the team is pegged as the one at fault, it is the children who lose out the most. They suffer the heartbreaking penalties and embarrassment after a summer filled of memories and national exposure. They have accomplished so much on the field, seeing new cities and meeting new friends. It is a tournament where the kids can be proud of being an athlete. The selfish and unfortunate actions of adults have spoiled this once great event held once a year.

Parents are blaming racism as the culprit of JRW’s downfall, but the real ones to blame are the adults who take winning too seriously.