A few days ago, news broke that Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West Little League team had been stripped of it’s title after it was discovered that some members of the team lived outside of it’s official geographic zone. This news rippled across the country, especially here in Philadelphia. Jackie Robinson West had to beat Philadelphia’s much celebrated Taney Dragons to advance in the tournament.
As you can imagine, the scandal was a primary topic of discussion on sports radio on Wednesday evening. As I ran some errands for work, I listened to WIP’s Josh Innes express sympathy for the children who had just been stripped of their accomplishments while at the same time chastising one player’s mother for trying to make the situation into a racial issue. He argued that she was attacking white people when her anger should have been directed at the coaches who cheated and the league officials who allowed it to happen.
I have to say that I agree with much of Innes’s argument. Every parent who’s child was legitimately on that team should be upset, with the coaches specifically and with Little League Baseball in general. I also agree that while it’s never ideal to punish children for the mistakes of adults, the only just thing to do was to void the team’s accomplishments. They cheated and there must be consequences (NFL, take note).
However, there is one part of Innes’s analysis with which I must disagree. That angry mother was not the one making it a race issue; she was just acknowledging the truth. When you have an all or almost all black team (or even a team with more than the typical number of people of color) in a mostly white sport and in a culture where issues of race are pervasive, race is inevitably a factor in just about everything that happens.
The great thing about sports is that, as trivial as the game on the field may be, they do not happen in a vacuum. Sports are inextricably tied to the real and consequential events of the world around them. Sports give us fresh perspective on our world and create safe spaces for dealing with heavy issues. Consider the climate of this year’s Little League World Series. The nation had been plunged deep into the anguish and confusion that resulted from the execution by police of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and other black men. Black America was really beginning to wonder if black lives mattered to mainstream America and where they could look to find hope.
Then, seemingly on cue, two inner city baseball teams – from Philly and Chicago – full of beautiful, articulate, talented black and brown children burst onto the scene at the lily-white Little League World Series. Not only did they show up, the performed well and they were accepted and celebrated. Their lives did matter. Minority children were given the love and the value that many people were protesting for in Ferguson and New York and even in Philadelphia and Chicago. A small sliver of hope was found.
For many, some of that hope was snatched back this week. Nobody died. Nobody took away the chance of a successful future from any of the players. Still, one can imagine how a parent could feel that the rug was being pulled from under the black community again. The end of Reconstruction. The assassination of Dr. King. Voter suppression and police brutality in the 21st century. The insanity that is Iggy Azalea and Miley Cyrus. Birthers. It seems we always take two steps forward and one step back.
That mother wasn’t angry at white people, at least I don’t think so (and to her credit she never said she was). She was angry at life, at the situation, at the fact that it seems like black people always get the short end of the stick. I’m sure she wondered if other teams get away with the same kind of cheating (which is now being investigated). I’m sure she wondered if her son would get labeled as a mindless, cheating jock. I’m sure she wondered why people she never met had the privilege of rewriting her son’s childhood.
And I’m sure any of us who looks at this objectively can see clearly how issues of race and class can not be removed from this situation. The difference is that those of us who live in brown skin don’t get the privilege of ignoring it.