Spring training begets baseball, followed soon by lawyers and lawsuits: Cubs rooftops, A-Rod, Pete Rose, Josh Hamilton, and even Ernie Banks from the grave are all ushering in the 2015 season.
My annual Pitchers, Catchers & Lawyers take on the new baseball season focuses on a national feel good story gone bad—the thrilling Jackie Robinson West Little League team—which raises this intriguing legal question: is it possible to break the rules without cheating?
On August 23, 2014, Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West little leaguers won the U.S. title game during the annual World Series tournament, a stirring and poignant victory by the first all-black team to win the national crown. On February 12, 2015, the JRW team held a news conference conducted not by its coach, team organizer, or star player, but by its attorney Victor Henderson, who ran through a litany of questions and begged for answers in the wake of a cheating scandal that saw the team stripped of its title by the Little League hierarchy. It was a demoralizing, even infuriating blow. The team, it was alleged, had included players from beyond the stated boundaries, and thereby was found to have violated the written residency rules.
Did JRW cheat? Did the kids cheat? Was racism the motive for removing their title? Residency cheating is usually done differently with outside “ringers” faking addresses within the stated territory, but here the kids and parents were honest about where they live while the team allegedly tried to reinvent the boundary lines. Apparently three players were from outside the JRW boundaries, and the Little League investigators also found that some of the JRW team officials had attempted to redraw the territory map during or after the season to make them appear to be legal. Heartbreaking as the sanctions were, there is more to the story.
Yes, these kids suffered a really tough blow, but everyone gets hurt here. The Nevada team players who lost to JRW in the title match were also innocent, yet they had already lost out. But even before that, what about the JRW players who were bumped off the team, supplanted by the outsider kids? They were left out, were almost certainly African-American, and had done nothing wrong, either.
Is it possible that JRW broke the residency rules without cheating? The Little League rules devote two full pages to the residency issue, and expressly state that no one has the authority to waive those rules. The local teams actually draw their own boundaries, which then get approved by the Little League, and these can be changed before any given season so long as the Little League approves and adjacent teams from poached territories do not object. The players must live within those boundaries or attend school there. There are also other games for which residency is not a strict requirement, but this does not apply to the World Series tournament.
The act of cheating requires an element of intent. Did JRW actually try to cheat, or did it make a mistake, forgetting that some of the players did not belong on the team for World Series purposes? This is possible. But when they realized the error, they may have panicked and tried to redraw the map. This, however, IS cheating, which made the Little League ruling more understandable, if not inevitable.
Unfortunately, any ruling other than title forfeiture would actually encourage future cheating. If getting caught nonetheless ends with retaining the title, aggressive coaches and officials may as well take a chance.
Was racism involved in the decision? It is tragic that the first all-black winning team happens to get disqualified. Perhaps we will never know whether racism was a root cause of the sanctions, but it would seem very unlikely. Even if race was a motive for the first person to complain to the Little League (and there is no evidence that it was), the Little League actions are independent and based upon a review of the circumstances. Two of the best things to happen to the Little League in recent decades were this stirring JRW story and the front-page success of female pitching phenom Mo’ne Davis from Philadelphia—and both involved African-American kids.
Only two other teams have had their titles revoked over the last seven decades. Is the Little League anti-black? Highly unlikely. Who would want to destroy this great JRW story? But did they unwittingly commit an act of racism by selectively sanctioning JRW? This, too, is possible, although it also seems unlikely. However, JRW effectively lost even this argument if it tried to cheat after the fact by redrawing the boundaries to include these kids.
Sports in America have taken on new meaning with a radical increase in the money involved (including the new Little League ESPN TV contract), these higher stakes bringing out the worst in pro players, agents, coaches, and even parents. Pitchers, catchers, and lawyers report. Indeed, they do. Even in the Little League, which now, apparently, has truly made it to the bigs.
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