I had planned on writing a column about how the adults surrounding the kids at Jackie Robinson West reacted to their being stripped of the Little League World Series U.S. championship.
It was going to be a chastisement of their failure to use the punishment to teach children that life is full of consequences, even sometimes for actions you didn’t do yourself. I’d thought it out, outlined it in my head, even hashed it out on my radio show. But then I realized there really are no adults involved here.
Jackie Robinson is an American hero and a man known for integrity. That a team using his name would find itself in this situation won’t sully his memory, but it does make the transgression that much worse.
Jackie Robinson West cheated – it recruited players from neighboring areas to strengthen its team. But so what? What just a decade ago would have been greeted with anger at the adults who did it and the parents who knew is now an opportunity to play victim and the race card.
Jackie Robinson West isn’t the problem; it is just a symptom.
The concept of trying to thwart rules came into existence about 10 minutes after rules were created and has flourished ever since. But breaking the rules always had consequences when a rule breaker was caught. It no longer does.
OK, that’s not entirely true. Breaking the rules now has a weird cachet. Getting caught affords the offender the opportunity to claim victim status.
Lance Armstrong, perhaps the most famous cheater of our day, says he cheated because everyone else cheated. Barry Bonds, baseball’s most prolific home run hitter, cheated, if only in spirit since his “cheat” wasn’t technically against the rules until after he’d done it. Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll left the football program at USC in shambles – and with NCAA sanctions – to collect millions coaching in the pros.
Sports cheaters take hits to their legacies, but that’s really it. The kids from Jackie Robinson West? Their “legacy,” as it is, will be that they’re the team that cheated, until next week when no one remembers the story.
They lost their title and their trophy, but they lived the experience. That can’t be taken away from them. The adults who cheated to win will be forgotten too. But right now, with the story still stinging in the minds of those kids, is the time to teach them and kids across the country a valuable lesson about cheating.
But that’s not what is happening, and that is a problem.
The person who initially questioned Jackie Robinson West’s actions is now receiving death threats. Since the team consisted of all black players, charges of racism were thrown around by disgraced Catholic priest Michael Pfleger and Jesse Jackson. Even White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said, “The fact is, some dirty dealing by some adults doesn’t take anything away from the accomplishments of those young men.”
But the charges of racism and the statement from the White House are not true.
Adults, including the now former coach of Jackie Robinson West, cheated. And their cheating gave the team an unfair advantage over its opponents. Had the team followed the rules, it still might have won. But we will never know. Losing the title is the exact right thing to do.
But painting the kids as victims is the exact wrong thing to do.
If you unknowingly go to the plate and hit a home run with an illegal bat and get caught, your ignorance won’t make your run count – you’re just out. If you go to a tournament with illegal players, you are disqualified, even if it’s discovered long after the fact. Actions, even those unknown to you, have consequences.
Parents, the media and opportunists like Jackson and Pfleger are doing a major disservice to these kids by trying to insulate them from those consequences.
Learning that rules matter is an important lesson in life, as is learning there are repercussions for violating them. The kids of Jackie Robinson West could have learned that this week, admittedly the hard way. But that’s not what they’re being taught. They’re being told by adults who know better that they’ve been on the receiving end of an injustice. And, in fact, they have. But if those adults really want to see the perpetrators of that injustice they need only find a reflective surface.