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Chicago Little League Scandal Isn't Black and White

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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Little League International has completed its investigation into Jackie Robinson West, deciding to strip the team from the South Side of Chicago of its U.S. World Series title. Yes, the biggest scandal to rock the sports world since Monday is finally over. Everyone can rest easy that integrity has been restored to the baseball diamond.

The episode began in December, when a rival squad accused the all-black Jackie Robinson team, which came within a game of winning the Little League World Series, of redrawing its district to include parts of neighboring suburbs and stack its roster with talent. (Gerrymandering in Chicago? Gasp.)

So thanks to the heinous judgment of some scheming adults and our propensity for collective outrage, a group of kids helping keep hope alive that baseball is still for black people, too, will learn an important lesson about moral absolutism -- I mean, “integrity” -- in sports.

Too often, everything in sports is black or white, win or lose, good or bad. As we saw with Deflategate, cheating fits squarely into this dichotomy for most fans. But as I wrote about the overblown Patriots controversy, bending the rules isn’t necessarily cheating, and we need to keep things in perspective before calling for heads to roll.

In the grand scheme of Little League controversies, this one seems relatively minor. The boon to competitive advantage here doesn’t begin to approach Danny Almonte levels.

Even so, fine, the rules were apparently broken. Unfortunately, that’s where the conversation tends to end. But the issue is so much more complex than the knee-jerk reaction it’s elicited.

First, it seems unduly punitive to vacate the team’s title, to wrest a trophy away from a group of 12- and 13-year-olds because of wrongdoing they had no part in perpetrating. After the World Series, these kids were giving interviews to their local news organizations, not hiding their residencies as part of a nefarious cover-up. Punishing them is akin to the NCAA banning from bowl games the Penn State players who had nothing to do with the Jerry Sandusky child-abuse scandal -- and we all know how that turned out.

Let’s stop and think about what’s really going on here. An official of Evergreen Park, a rival league from a suburb that’s nearly 70 percent white, whose team was embarrassed by JRW to the tune of 42-3, took it upon himself to launch a one-man investigation into where some young black boys live. And as with Deflategate, questions have since arisen as to how widespread the practice of skirting residency rules actually is. A parent of an Evergreen Park player says the team recruited her son even though they live outside its borders. 

As the mother of one of the Jackie Robinson players said, “Living in Chicago, whenever African-Americans exceed expectations, there's going to be fault found in what we do.”

There’s a pattern here: In 2002, a Harlem team was accused of using players who were ineligible because of their residencies in the lead-up to the World Series. The kids ultimately all passed their background checks, but it’s hard not to notice the common factor between Harlem and the South Side that might invite extra scrutiny.

In both cases, we’re still missing the bigger picture. Urban decay, crime and unemployment in predominantly black neighborhoods in Chicago and other cities have spurred black flight to the suburbs. Families move outside city limits for better schools, safety and job opportunities. 

Yet it’s understandable that these kids would want to continue playing baseball together after some flee to greener pastures. According to the Chicago Sun-Times’s Mary Mitchell, the Jackie Robinson West boys had grown up playing together. But even if that isn’t the case here or elsewhere, it makes sense for a group of black preteens to want to be on teams with others from similar backgrounds.

And while we often lament the decline of black baseball players in the majors, it’s impossible to separate that from the decline of baseball in inner cities, caused in part by conditions driving middle-class blacks to the suburbs. A sport with decidedly urban origins is now too expensive for many cities and their residents to maintain, from the burden of travel and equipment costs and four-figure club fees on low-income families, to the space requirements for public ballparks.

So, in addition to better jobs and schools, the suburbs present better baseball opportunities for families that take Little League seriously. That higher level of competition can lure top-level talent from the city, further depleting the pool of urban players.

It’s a vicious cycle, especially when you see all the good baseball can do for a community. Of all Major League Baseball’s philanthropic programs, none has more impact than the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities  initiative. RBI establishes baseball and softball teams and provides academic support for hundreds of thousands of boys and girls in more than 200 cities. The results have been striking: In New York, which has citywide public high-school graduation rates at 64 percent -- 59 percent among blacks and 57 percent among Hispanics -- Harlem RBI reports a graduation rate of 95 percent and a college acceptance rate of 92 percent. 

The benefits work both ways -- since the program started in 1989, more than 200 RBI participants have been drafted by MLB teams, including 13 in the 2014 draft. The veterans include C.C. Sabathia, Carl Crawford, Manny Machado and Justin Upton.

The Chicago controversy is in part the consequence of economic forces that work against young, black baseball talent. But those Jackie Robinson West players will continue to inspire inner-city children who might now think they do, in fact, belong on the diamond. In the long run, that would be an even greater victory than the one they had last summer, one worthy of the man after whom their program is named.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net