by Rob McManamy

Little League World Series Game 1 crop

Okay, that’s it. I now have to say something about the maddening Little League World Series cheating scandal that saw Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West (JRW) team, the first-ever national champion team comprised entirely of African-Americans, stripped of its title for knowingly violating geographic rules for recruiting players. 

What was the last straw for me? When Rev. Jesse Jackson was reported to have said, “You don’t have to be guilty to be crucified.”

In reference to a team named after an honest-to-goodness African-American hero, he equated JRW’s trials to that of Jesus Christ.

Let’s follow the suggested analogy for a moment. If the innocent young members of the JRW team represent “Jesus” here, then who exactly is playing the role of “Judas”? Who betrayed the team?

It is not the Little League International, which issued a lengthy decision Feb. 11, backed by extensive evidence. Nor is it the coach of the rival team in the Chicago suburbs, who kept pursuing the evidence last fall even after JRW had captured the hearts of America last summer. 

The role of betrayer I’m afraid, belongs to the coaches and parents of the JRW squad. The ones that knew the team was violating rules and rationalized every misstep with some form of “everybody-does-it” excuse.

And now their sins of commission and omission —which no doubt have damaged the children involved— are being compounded by a self-serving gaggle of publicity hounds that includes a mayor up for reelection in less than 10 days. Brandishing an attorney at Saturday’s rally, JRW is now threatening a lawsuit, claiming unfair treatment based on race, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and other civic leaders are calling on the Little League to reverse its decision “for the children.”

As sports columnist Steve Rosenbloom observed in today’s Chicago Tribune, “For those of you scoring at home, the JRW people have gone from cheating other Little League teams out of a legitimate chance at a championship to cheating their own kids out of the right lesson… The teachable moment for the players will come when all of the shameless politicians and public figures get tired of using the kids and parents as props.” 

His Tribune colleague, David Haugh, added: “For everyone who complains how the everybody-gets-a-trophy trend softens society, consider how the winning-is-the-only-thing mentality can sully it… Losing teaches lessons as valuable as winning and, at this stage of any young athlete’s development, the journey means so much more than the destination.” 

Whether winning graciously or losing with class, how we handle success and disappointment helps to define our character. In school or on the field, the young are always learning from what they see and hear. 

Unfortunately, what children see and hear is often far from model behavior, especially in professional sports. Earlier this month, millions of Americans saw the Super Bowl’s remarkable ending. While most will recall the goal-line interception that decided the game, equally memorable for me is the image of a Seattle player (Richard Sherman) taunting the opposition when victory seemed assured, and then, after the final gun, the sight of players brawling in the end zone.

What did that ugliness teach anyone about sportsmanship?

Indeed, if sports are not about sportsmanship and character, then what purpose, if any, do they serve? Absent those qualities, aren’t competitive sports little more than tribal rituals invented to allow one tribe to feel superior to another? 

A year ago when I was working on an article on Character and the Olympics, I contacted an old college newspaper friend, Chuck Culpepper, who was covering the Sochi Olympics for SportsOnEarth.com. I asked him about the supposed Olympic ideal of world peace through healthy competition and he memorably replied, “In general, these (games) are monumentally corrupt human episodes.”

Needless to say, those words have stuck with me.

But I have also always loved sports since I was a child, especially baseball. The feel of a good throw reaching its destination just ahead of a hustling runner. Or that sweet spot in the batter’s box, when a swinging club meets a thrown ball at just the right angle, so there is almost no perceptible resistance, and a line drive results. 

Pure sports hold so many pure pleasures.

We have to remember that the games are not about us. They are about the young players, the healthy physical exercise and the joy of effort. As David Haugh concludes his Sunday column, “They should worry only about the things that matter: Playing hard, playing smart, and having fun.”

Valuable lessons in teamwork, perseverance and resilience are always available. Opportunities to demonstrate honesty and integrity abound, as well. We just have to remember to look for them and to help our children find them.

Dale Murphy

One person dedicated to promoting such behavior is Dale Murphy, former Atlanta Braves star and founder of “I Won’t Cheat!”. The organization was created in the midst of Major League Baseball’s emerging steroids scandal with the clever motto: “Injecting ethics into America’s future.”

We are excited to have Dale Murphy as a Keynote speaker at the 2015 National Forum on Character Education. Interested in continuing these discussions on cultivating character through sports? Join us for Murphy’s address, as well as many other sports-focused breakout sessions.