A lot of ink and pixels have been spilled during the past week about the scandal involving Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West (JRW) Little League team. If you haven’t learned the specifics by now, JRW annexed parts of three adjacent districts, redrew the map for their own district based on this misapportionment and, most damning of all, backdated the map in an attempt to deceive the officials at Little League International.
Most of the criticism has centered on the adults involved, and that’s certainly appropriate. It’s practically certain that the kids neither initiated nor facilitated the fraud, although they are definitely being held accountable for the misdeed after having been stripped of their championship. As painful as it is for them to be punished for something they did not have a hand in or knowledge of, there is no other real choice. They won their championship with ineligible players because of a fraud carried out by the adults charged with stewarding and mentoring them, and if nothing else, they will hopefully learn that if it is found out that you won by cheating, even inadvertently or unknowingly, the spoils of your victory will be taken away. That’s a good life lesson to learn at that early age, and they will surely never forget it.
What about the adults in all this, though? This same lesson is one they should have themselves learned as children. Maybe they did and maybe they didn’t, but either way, they knowingly perpetrated a fraud, with malice aforethought, for the purposes of maximizing their young players’ chances of achieving ultimate glory. What was in it for the adults?
There are a lot of layers that could probably be peeled from that onion to help explain their motivation, ranging from vicariism to egoism to genuine parental love. There’s another one to consider: the desire to become famous by being on television.
Not every parent or coach or sports official who cheats does so to be on television. We’ve all seen lots of examples of folks cheating “just because”, to seemingly no good or even visible end, and it’s all the more reprehensible to do so by exploiting grade school kids playing a team sport. But here in the media-mad, always-connected, celebrity-obsessed America of the 21st Century, the lure of being on television to a nationwide or even worldwide audience is a powerful motivator that could entice a person, even one who might otherwise not break the rules, to do that very thing in order to appear on television, to become famous, to be interviewed and fawned over and treated like a VIP by everyone around you, if only for a little while. I’m not talking about the kids here. I’m talking about adults who themselves would like to bask in the kids’ glow of achievement. As we all know, that is definitely a thing.
Ethics is almost never a binary yes-no thing, as in “this person is ethical, that person is unethical, and that’s that.” It’s more of a sliding scale, where it is the thing and not the person that is ethical or unethical, and the more powerful the incentive, the larger the reward, the more likely an otherwise upstanding and honest person will be drawn into doing something that’s unethical. And it’s not unreasonable to conclude that the prospect of being on national television is enough to push many normally upstanding citizens closer to the “un” side of the scale.
Make no mistake about it: televising the Little League World Series has become a big deal. The first Little League World Series game was telecast by tape delay in 1962; and until 1985, by which time games were being televised live, it appeared strictly as part of ABC TV’s Wide World of Sports, a series conceived to showcase a panoply of all kinds of sports, great and not so great, from all around the world. Little League baseball was long considered not great enough to be any more than a part of this panoply, and it’s important here to note that it was only the championship game that was being televised each year.
That changed with the dawn of the new millennium. Starting in 2000, televised coverage shifted to ESPN and was expanded to include 12 games. The following year that increased to 25 games, including all eight US regional championships, on the heels of a six-year, seven million dollar deal Little League signed with ABC, the parent company of ESPN. The deal was renewed for eight years and $30.5 million starting in 2006 and was so successful and profitable that the deal was re-upped starting in 2014 for another eight years, this time for $76 million. Last year, a total of 54 Little League games were shown on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC, including the regionals leading up to the final tournament in Williamsport.
Of course, there’s a reason all this corporate money is flowing into baseball games being played between grade school kids: people watch it. Lots of people. And when there is an especially good story surrounding the teams, the ratings skyrocket, and there have been few stories better than two featured this past year: the JRW team; and a flame-throwing young lady pitcher named Mo’Ne Davis from South Philadelphia. According to a report in Sports Media Watch, television ratings were up +71% overall this year versus 2013, and the championship game between JRW and South Korea pulled +65% more viewers than last year’s final tilt.
With all the money and the exposure come the inevitable questions regarding questionable behavior, if not actual impropriety, by Little League International (LLI) officials in this matter. There are reports that an official of a competing Little League association from suburban Chicago brought the allegations regarding JRW to LLI officials during last summer’s tournament, only to be turned away. LLI officials denied that any misconduct had been engaged in by JRW at that time, and again as late as December, responding only that the team had been built within the rules, until the resulting paper trail made continued denial an untenable position. If their role in this did happen as it’s been was reported, and if we’re being honest with ourselves, it’s easy to understand why LLI might reflexively deny wrongdoing rather than either acknowledging the possibility or staying mum. After all, there was a lot of money on the table they might have jeopardized by publicly addressing these issues while the tournament was still going on.
But isn’t this entire situation reflective of a general cultural shift that seems to have occurred in which anything that can be monetized will be monetized, and that in the service of this ideal nothing is out of bounds or off limits, even our children? Witness in recent years the emergence of high school football and basketball games being nationally televised, not just state championship games but all season long, with schoolboys traveling all over the country (on school nights, in many cases) to play other schoolboys for the benefit of the sports networks and their sponsors. In fact, there was a game on ESPNU between Callaway High School in Mississippi and Dominican High School in Milwaukee, located more than 800 miles away, just this past Saturday. There’s even a website devoted to promoting the best eighth-grade basketball players in the country. The commoditizing of children’s athletics, again, for the benefit of the commercial media and their corporate sponsors has established itself as a mainstream phenomenon.
You can’t blame the kids for wanting to play ball on TV. Who wouldn’t want to do that? That would be super cool! And their enthusiasm for such a possibility should not be surprising, nor should it necessarily be tamped down. But when that same level of enthusiasm spreads inexorably upwards to the adults in their lives—the same adults who are charged with teaching their kids the values of honesty and fair play, but who are also in a position to bend rules and falsify documentation and all the other things that can smooth the way to fulfilling their kids’ dreams of being heroes on TV—it sends a dangerously conflicting message to the kids, and reflects terribly on our culture.