The players of Jackie Robinson West, after winning the U.S. Championship in August, 2014. Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images
It was a classic Cinderella story: The young players on the Jackie Robinson West Little League baseball team captured the hearts of the nation when they became the first all African-American team to win the U.S. Championship this summer. They were a team based out of Chicago’s South Side, known more for gun violence than victories. After their wins, Jackie Robinson West was celebrated in a citywide parade, invited to the White House to meet the President and the First Lady, and held up as heroes to young ball players across the country.
But the fairy-tale had a crushing ending. On Wednesday, Little League International stripped the team of its title and all of its wins after discovering that team officials falsified boundaries in order to include players who were geographically ineligible.
“The real troubling part of this is that we feel horribly for the kids who are involved with this,” Little League International president and CEO Stephen D. Keener told ESPN on Wednesday. “Certainly, no one should cast any blame, any aspersions on the children who participated on this team. To the best of our knowledge, they had no knowledge that they were doing anything wrong. They were just kids out playing baseball, which is the way it should be.”
In this case, one of the adults in question was also a team parent. Manager Darold Butler, who has been suspended in the wake of Little League International’s findings, is the father of 12-year-old center fielder DJ Butler. And, according to social psychologist Susan Newman, parenting—like baseball—has become a competitive sport. “What these adults did was in an effort for the kids on their team to get ahead. And, sure, the kids won — but then they lost,” she tells Yahoo Parenting. “Competitive parenting starts when kids are toddlers and parents try to give them an edge by enrolling them in a special education program, or pushing them into sports that they wouldn’t naturally lean towards.”
Of course, there’s a difference between pushing a child to get ahead and knowingly cheating, but Newman says any parent who’s questioning his or her decision should consider who the decision will impact. “It’s a real problem for all parents: When are you doing something that, in the long run, will damage your child?” she says. “If there’s even an inkling of doubt, that’s when you need to stop and say ‘why am I hesitating? Something doesn’t feel right.’”
And while they’re not at fault, the boys on Jackie Robinson West are paying the price. It begs the question: what happens to kids when they are punished for adults’ mistakes?
“Some of these kids will brush it off, and some may say, a couple of years down the line, ‘these adults ruined my shot at a baseball career,’” she says. “But kids are resilient. They bounce back.”
And while critics universally disapprove of Butler and the other officials’ actions, there’s debate on how to best treat the kids. Many are still lauding the players as winners. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, in a press conference on Wednesday, said: “The city remains united in its support of these great children, and in our hearts, they will always be champions in Chicago.”
But Chicago Tribune columnist Rex W. Huppke argues that the best way to wring a lesson out of this mess is to be honest with the players. “These are not champions. To say otherwise is a disservice to these kids, and they’ve already been handed a disservice big enough to last a lifetime,” he wrote in an editorial Wednesday morning. “If you take from this the knowledge that nobody wins by cheating, if you remember this rotten feeling for the rest of your lives and dedicate yourselves to playing the game right, or coaching the game right, or encouraging other kids to play the game right, then you’ll wind up with something far greater than a championship. You’ll wind up with integrity.”