The 2014 Jackie Robinson West Little League team may have been stripped of their Little League World Series U.S. Championship, but obviously the circus didn’t steal the fight and pride from the kids or the parents associated with the program. Now they are coming for every talking head, racist, hating parent, corrupt coach and drama seeker that crushed these kids’ dreams and erased what was the greatest community-driven accomplishment the city of Chicago’s young and under-served have had in decades.
Growing up in the streets of crime-ridden Chicago teaches one how to scrap and scrape to get ahead. This special group of boys fought their way to an unexpected youth baseball championship and made history in the process.
Six months after losing to South Korea in the Little League World Series, Jackie Robinson West was stripped of its U.S. Title after allegations that the team had brought in ringers from outside towns and manipulated district lines to form the best lineup they could.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t as simple as that, but their side of the story was pretty much dismissed, so now they are taking their fight to the courts and everybody is a target.
The lawsuit names Little League International, ESPN and officials from the local league, including the team’s former coach, Darold Butler, former league president Bill Haley, Evergreen Park whistleblower Chris Janes and ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith.
In addition, the suit alleges the controversy resulted in emotional distress, defamation of character and invasion of privacy of the team’s members and family.
The ESPN claims come in retaliation to an episode of “First Take” in which Smith complained about adults making these terrible decisions in a league named after Jackie Robinson, who revolutionized baseball when he became the first African American to play in the major leagues when he started for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
“I’d like to see it again...let’s put (coach) Darold Butler and (district administrator) Michael Kelly’s face up on television, treat it like the mugshot it deserves to be treated like,” said Smith.
The ESPN anchor also said that Butler “threw” his players “into the wind.”
ESPN also defamed Butler, according to the lawsuit, by saying the team fabricated residency documents and deliberately assembled the ineligible team.
In a recent conversation I had with Chicago hero and NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, some of the kids on the team had big-time family issues, financial issues and housing instability consistent with young African-American kids trying to survive in an urban jungle. These complicated social matters made it much more difficult for the team. “You had kids who were homeless staying with other families and parents who weren’t working, so they didn’t have consistent addresses, “ Thomas said.
Thomas says it was less about coaches and parents “cheating” and more about navigating the unusual circumstances that inner-city African-American youth must go through. The teams that play in these tournaments are traditionally white kids from small towns with working parents and financial support.
"When I was growing up (on the South Side of Chicago)," Thomas added. "I lived everywhere because I grew up in affordable housing and sometimes you couldn't pay the rent...so you got kicked out."
The suit also names Little League International, with whom Butler said he had negotiated boundary map issues before the team made it to the World Series.
“Little League was aware of the potential residency issues of the children of the JRW Parents, but chose to ignore and/or deliberately conceal these facts in order to garner higher ratings, publicity, and money for Defendant Little League,” the complaint reads.
Chris Jones, the opposing coach who reported the Jackie Robinson West team, was also named in the suit, but called it “laughable” and told DNAinfo in Chicago, “We benefited zero from this and we didn’t go into it intending to get anything out of it, except we all want to play by the same rules.”
I doubt the all-white team from Vegas who was awarded the championship after JRW was stripped and the white kids who play in the safe suburbs of Chicago would ever want to exist and try to prevail under the same rules and debilitating, inhibitive circumstances that Jackie Robinson West players overcome every day. I maintain that stripping these boys of this championship is one of the most egregious and blatant acts of racism that we have experienced in this country in youth sports.
All of the pride and sense of accomplishment those boys brought to a struggling city was erased, and rather than being able to return to school and walk the community as heroes, they were instead reminded of how tough it will be to rise above the elements in this country.
The way JRW galvanized everyone in Chicago and had everyone rooting for kids who were once looked upon as “super predators” and gang bangers, as Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton once described urban minorities, was progressive America at work.
It was short-lived however, and with the stripping of their title, the team's victory would not be used as a shining example of what's possible when the community comes together and encourages under-served kids, but as another black eye on an already black face.
A feeling of unbelievable community pride turned into a twisted race for folks to separate themselves from this team of “cheaters” that the media had so thoroughly ripped apart after presenting them as living examples of the American Dream.
Little League Baseball, Stephen A. Smith and ESPN have since moved on to another million dollar topic, town or group of people to tear down. The family and kids of Jackie Robinson West, however, live with the disgrace every day and they aren’t satisfied with the results or the way their kids lives have been damaged by this incident and now somebody has to pay.
That’s how America works isn’t it?