Jackie Robinson West, the first all-black team from Chicago’s South Side to win the U.S. title in the Little League World Series last summer, has been stripped of its title for using ineligible players from outside team boundaries to build a super team.
The news came as a major blow for many Little League fans - and offers a morality tale about the role adults play in youth sports.
Jackie Robinson West was a feel-good story from the 2014 tournament, the first African-American team to win the title in a sport that typically struggles to attract black players. The team also reached the final of the Little League World Series last summer and quickly became fan favorites. They were honored by President Obama at the White House last November.
“For more than 75 years, Little League has been an organization where fair play is valued over the importance of wins and losses,” Stephen D. Keener, the president and chief executive of Little League International, said in a statement. “This is a heartbreaking decision. 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.”
Those actions include using an altered boundary map, as well as players who lived outside team boundaries, according to a Little League investigation.
The Little League organization said that "after an extensive review," it determined that the team "knowingly violated Little League International rules and regulations by placing players on their team who did not qualify to play because they lived outside the team’s boundaries.
"Little League International found that Jackie Robinson West Little League used a falsified boundary map for their 2014 tournament," it added.
The League's announced the following repercussions: Jackie Robinson West's stripped title will instead be awarded to the team from Las Vegas that Jackie Robinson West defeated in the U.S. championship game, and the Jackie Robinson team will also have to vacate all wins from the 2014 Little League World Series tournament, including their Great Lakes regional title.
Additionally, Darold Butler, the team’s manager, has been suspended from Little League activity and Michael Kelly, the Illinois District 4 administrator, has been removed from his position.
“As our Little League operations staff learned of the many issues and actions that occurred over the course of 2014 and prior, as painful as this is, we feel it a necessary decision to maintain the integrity of the Little League program,” the League organization said of its decision. “No team can be allowed to attempt to strengthen its team by putting players on their roster that live outside their boundaries.”
Parents of Jackie Robinson West players said they found out about the team's title being revoked on the news, like everyone else, and were upset by the decision.
“We’re just blown away by this,” Venisa Green, mother of Jackie Robinson West player Brandon Green, told the Chicago Tribune. “All of the parents and kids together -- we had no knowledge or forewarning, no communication from the league.”
She told the Tribune she wondered if the team’s title would’ve been questioned if the kids weren’t African American.
“Would they rather the boys be killed in the Chicago streets than actively engaged in the sport they love?” she said. “My breath is taken away.”
Arguably, the Jackie Robinson West team, in effect, did what politicians are accused of doing on a regular basis: gerrymandering, or manipulating boundaries to achieve a desired result. But while seasoned politicians regularly get away with it, a team of all-black pre-teens from Chicago's South Side don't.
Others note that this is what happens when overzealous adults get involved in youth sports. Here's how one Chicago Tribune columnist described it:
There’s a sickness in youth sports in America, lurking just under the surface. It’s a pathetic need among some adults to live vicariously through the success of children, and that need gets fed no matter the cost.
Grown men and women cheat. They bend the rules. They play only the best players. They scream. They curse.
It’s a minority of coaches, no doubt, but a big enough minority to make youth sports, at times, both embarrassing and insufferable. This is one of those times.
This isn't the first controversy in Little League history.
The Rolando Paulino Little League team from the Bronx was stripped of its third-place finish in the 2001 tournament when it was revealed that pitcher Danny Almonte was too old to play.
And in 1992, a team from the Philippines was stripped of its Little League World Series title after it was learned that some players did not meet age or residency requirements.