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Little League, big mess

Inspiring Chicago baseball team loses title amid charges of fraud by the grown-ups


Associated Press/Photo by Charles Rex Arbogast

Little League, big mess
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As Jackie Robinson West (JRW) Little League made its run to a national championship in August, director Bill Haley told the Williamsport Sun-Gazette that children saw “what can be accomplished with hard work.” But because some adults didn’t follow the kids’ example, Little League International has stripped the all-black team of its title, leaving many up in arms.

Little League officials say JRW leaders falsified documents to redraw their boundaries in Chicago’s South Side, allowing them to subvert residency requirements and use players from nearby districts. Stripping the title was a “heartbreaking decision,” Little League president Stephen Keener said, because there’s no evidence the boys knew of any wrong.

Many now question what this means for the team’s legacy in the violence-prone Chicago neighborhood. JRW lost to South Korea in the international championship of the Little League World Series, but that didn’t stop thousands from taking to the streets to celebrate, even as racial strife broke out 300 miles away in Ferguson, Mo.

The league itself received more than $200,000 in donations from T-shirt sales and major league clubs, while one player’s hard-off family received a full-year’s rent. Joseph Haley started JRW in 1971 to give Chicago’s inner-city children a safe environment to develop character. Now his widow and son must forfeit their positions for JRW to be reinstated to Little League play.

Many cried out that rule-bending commercialism of big sports has now corrupted the redeeming qualities of youth sports, important for the inner city. “[JRW] has now become a symbol of what’s wrong with organized youth sports today,” said Clark Power, a Notre Dame professor and director of a youth sports culture program. “Adults have taken over children’s play, and children are losers.”

JRW, on the other hand, isn’t giving up on its children’s title. Community leaders backed an investigation into other teams to make sure JRW wasn’t singled out, as some suspect this is a common infraction.

For now, the U.S. title goes to Mountain Ridge Little League, and the Las Vegas–based coach Ashton Cave said this incident can teach a new lesson across youth sports: “If you bend the rules, there is going to be a consequence.”

The Jackie Robinson West All Stars Little League baseball team celebrates the team’s 2014 U.S. Little League Championship.JRW: Charles Rex Arbogast/ap • smith: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Losing two legends

College basketball lost two Hall of Fame coaches in February. With three titles and 15 Final Fours between them, North Carolina great Dean Smith died Feb. 7 at 83, followed Feb. 11 by UNLV enigma Jerry Tarkanian, 84. Smith’s 36 coaching years changed the game, contributing to the assist and helping to develop NBA greats like Michael Jordan and coaches like Larry Brown. The long-time member of ultra-progressive Binkley Baptist Church also boldly ventured outside basketball, advocating for poverty programs, protesting nuclear arms, and supporting LGBT rights.

He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013 from President Barack Obama, particularly for using basketball to challenge racial segregation in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Tarkanian challenged the NCAA the way Smith tackled Chapel Hill culture, but with less success. His Las Vegas juggernauts went to four Final Fours and won the 1990 title. But the towel-chewing Tarkanian regularly scuffled with the NCAA and its vision of the student-athlete while he himself had to vacate wins for rule-bending.

Fans and basketball purists had love-hate relationships with both coaches, who left indelible marks on the game. —A.B.


Andrew Branch Andrew is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD correspondent.

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