By Ryan Mayer
“If you aren’t cheating you aren’t trying.”
That is the mantra in the sports world. With the news that the Jackie Robinson West Little League fudged addresses to help put together an All-Star team capable of winning the US Title breaking recently, it seems to paraphrase Jim Rome nothing is sacred anymore in the sports world. This isn’t a recent phenomenon. It’s always been an element of sports. We’re just more conscious of it now and more outraged when the cheaters are outed.
Youth sports always seemed to be the safe harbor from the cheaters. At least the kids played the purest form of the sport. That’s why there’s been such visceral feedback against the parents involved in the JRW scenario. This isn’t the first example of cheating in Little League, in fact it’s not even the first of its kind when talking about using an “all-star team”. We all remember the Danny Almonte story. Rolando Paulino Little League from the Bronx was disqualified because its star pitcher Danny Almonte was found to be 14 years old, a full two years older than the 12 year old limit for the tournament. But how many people remember the team from Zamboanga in the Phillipines doing a very similar sort of thing to what Jackie Robinson West did? They won the 1992 LLWS and were found to have put together a “national all-star team” that included 8 players from outside the city limits.
Cheating today is pervasive and well documented at all levels, but as with Little League, the pro levels of sports have always had issues with rule breaking. The sport of baseball alone is a case study in finding ways to circumvent the rules. Pitchers had a wide variety of different ways to “doctor” the ball in the beginning to make it spin differently or move in unconventional ways. Hitters would “cork” the bat to try and give the ball a little more juice. There are whole sections of the MLB rulebook dedicated to strictly defining what a pitcher, batter and fielder isn’t allowed to do. Yet we still have guys like Michael Pineda who “slather” pine tar on their hat and get ejected. Former pitchers said this was a fairly common practice; you just couldn’t be overly obvious about it. It’s one of those tricky “unwritten” rules of the game that seems to include everything from that to how you should run the bases after hitting a homer.
It’s not just rule breaking that is let go by the arbiters of the game either. There are rules that are set down that are called only on a particularly flagrant infraction. Holding in the NFL is a good example. You hear commentators every Sunday say holding could by definition be called on every play. Same goes for traveling in the NBA.
Then, there are the players who try to gain an advantage over their opponents by “doping”. Steroids have been a discussion topic for years throughout the sports world. Whether it’s Lance Armstrong or Biogenesis or the multiple suspensions the NFL issued this year to players who tested positive for banned substances. Leagues have been more cognizant of this in recent years and have upped their testing policies and procedures.
What’s the reason for the seemingly rampant cheating today? The importance placed on winning and the money that is at stake. ESPN paid $60 million dollars back in 2013 to lock up the rights to broadcast the LLWS until 2022. There’s a reality series on Esquire Network called “Friday Night Tykes” that’s in its 2nd season and averaged 400,000 viewers per show in season one. That’s just the youth. The NBA just negotiated a new multi-billion dollar TV rights deal. The NFL just did the same for their Thursday night only package of games. Youth sports are becoming a profitable venture. The live sports industry in general is becoming a money making machine. As with anything that makes money there will be people that want to find the quickest way to make the most money. That leads to the question:
“How important has winning become?”
If parents and officials in Little League baseball are “re-districting” or “recruiting” players to put together teams that stand a better chance of winning the LLWS where are we as a people? Is winning the end all be all at every level?
More importantly, the desire to win by itself is fine, but if cheating is necessary to accomplish it then what are we telling the children? “Johnny all that matters is win at all costs.” Is that the message that we want to send?
There are some of us that probably experienced something similar with a star player being “held back” in early grades so that they could dominate at the high school level. The rumblings of high schools “recruiting” star players from other schools to build dynasties have been around for years. The problem is the cheating at the youth sports level has reached a rampant critical mass that hasn’t been seen before. There’s a pressure to win on youth/high school coaches that every avenue is explored to find a way to be victorious.
But the pressure is understandable when you see the money involved. Is it any wonder with this kind of prestige and money available that all levels of sports have become a “win at all costs” culture?
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.