by Dante Zappala
I was disappointed but not surprised to hear that the Jackie Robinson West Little League team was stripped of its title. It changed its geographical boundaries to include certain players and did not go through the proper process to do it.
I was equally disappointed and not surprised to hear that the team was ratted out by a sore-losing suburban team. This, unfortunately, is the way of the world.
And that way is really about how stagnate, corrupt and irresponsible adults are. I’m not laying the blame solely at the feet of the Chicago team’s leadership. It took liberties to gain an advantage. It also appears that some of those kids used fake addresses to attend better schools.
The real fault lies in the structure that made this all possible. The Little League World Series is an insanely profitable nonprofit enterprise. It has a lucrative TV contract with ESPN and close to $100 million in the bank.
Yet LLWS officials will not scrutinize an administrative action by the Jackie Robinson West team when it happens. Better put, they will not spend much money to ensure that the bending and breaking of rules doesn’t happen. Instead, they count on this scenario to unfold where a team carrying sour grapes does the legwork for them to expose the problem.
In that light, I don’t care if or why the team from Chicago fudged the rules. They went out there and played their hearts out and beat every U.S. team. They should be the champions. But precisely because it is youth sports, folks will play the card that what really matters is the principle, not winning or losing. At the professional level, rarely do we see these types of consequences for cheating.
The adults get the benefit of having it both ways. They got to capitalize on the popularity of this team when it was convenient to do so and now they get to teach those kids a lesson because it is suddenly convenient to do so.
Ironically, having it both ways is what kids are eternally attempting to do. We do everything we can to stop them. But because the adults have gotten away with it, the kids are left with nothing but a foot on their throats.
This is a lesson — that is for sure. But it is not a good lesson. Yet it is one that is repeated over and over again.
I took a look back at some of the youth track and field records. In most cases, I’m looking at the names of people I have never heard of. Very few of these kids went on to any great success in the sport. I certainly can’t speak on the circumstances of those particular children. Perhaps they got lured to another sport. Perhaps they were just superior at that age. It’s certainly more the norm that a kid who is phenomenal at a certain discipline at a young age does not ultimately succeed with it.
The problem is telling that to the parents. You’ve probably never witnessed a high caliber youth track and field event. It is unsurprisingly like any other sport. Kids are decked out looking like mini-me versions of professionals. Some of them are incredibly resilient and withstand the pressure. Others fold in ways where you can actually see the scars being formed.
Through it all, you have eager parents who are chasing a moment that is not entirely – or maybe not even mostly – about their kids. It’s an utter tragedy that is repeated daily across this country.
I believe we should still pursue excellence at a young age. If it’s learning to play the piano or learning to shoot a basketball, kids benefit from solid instruction and the right set of expectations.
Unfortunately, the problem is much broader than this nuanced debate about how intense and competitive these programs are or should be. The flaw is institutional. Organizations like the Little League World Series should be serving the best interests of children. Too often, the opposite occurs. The kids exist to serve the institutions. And worse, the children are expendable.
Charter schools offer the best example. The financial health of a charter school is dependent on the collective success of the children. If their test scores go down, the school can lose its charter. That would leave a lot of adults who are making decent money as the CEO, treasurer or principal without a paycheck. So, inherently, the kids are there to serve the interests of the adults.
If we allow this to happen in a place as treasured as our schools, there should be zero surprise that it happens in sports.
The better approach, at least in sports programs, would be one that capitalizes on the unique strengths that young people have at a given age. I think of the success that South Americans have with soccer or West Africans have with running; not just professional or financial success, but their success in elevating the level of play. Because these sports are so engrained in the culture, participation by children is both inspired and organic.
Training isn’t overly rigid. Yet the kids play frequently and with enough focus to acquire skills. Most of them will also never become professionals. And they probably won’t carry scars about that either. That liberation from the static nature of adults leads to a very key element in sports: Evolution. The passion and creativity of children are the key catalysts to the improvements we ultimately see at the top levels.
If we just copied that passion and creativity, if we borrowed some of their simple wisdom instead of taking their innocence, we could have it both ways. We could live out our own glory through them and hit a home run. One that counts.