Though I feel terrible for the kids, the fact that Jackie Robinson West was just stripped of their U.S. Little League championship, for what amounts to recruiting violations, doesn’t surprise me in the least. Much like the doping epidemic during Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France tenure, cheating is the norm in all youth sports.
Put another way, compared to youth sports coaches and officials, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots are mere pretenders.
And the reason all those recently interviewed coaches continue to insist there are only a few bad youth sport apples is, if they told the truth, they wouldn’t be coaching for very long. Just like cockroaches, the leagues and clubs can’t stand it when you turn on that kitchen light.
After four years of coaching youth soccer, and despite the fact that the Tri-Cities Soccer Association (TCSA) is better than most clubs, I was shocked whenever I came across a coach who didn’t cheat.
Northern Illinois’ biggest and oldest youth soccer club, Sockers FC, were bleepin’ blatant about it. And the reason they got away with it is they also ran the Northern Illinois Soccer League which is the only game in town. (No conflict there!) If you dare to complain – your club is out of the league. Good luck finding opponents!
It isn’t limited to youth soccer either. Given my previous newspaper columnist history, parents still come to me with all kinds of horror stories. So here are just a few examples:
- We’d play most travel teams twice a season. And it would always amaze me how the rosters of losing teams would be completely different the second time around. This was especially true of the Sockers who’d simply round up the best players from their higher level teams to “right the ship.” Meanwhile the marginal kids just sat on the bench.
- Teams would consistently “sandbag” or essentially place themselves in less competitive brackets to assure wins. The result was frequently getting blown out by double digits. Though this practice was another Sockers specialty, everyone did it – especially in the tournaments.
- Another fun thing about tournaments was, we consistently had to face 6 foot tall 13 year-olds who clearly had to shave. While one out-on-the-end of the bell curve 13 year-old player wasn’t unreasonable, there were entire teams where their smallest player was bigger than our biggest player. The Lincolnshire Lightning were the masters of beating the age requirements.
- And speaking of the Lincolnshire Lightning, despite a massive 2 percent Hispanic population in the area around that city. Their best teams were 100 percent Hispanic. They simply robbed the nearby Hispanic clubs of their best players because they couldn’t compete with them financially.
- Indoor winter soccer was the worst. Travel teams would sign up to play in the recreational leagues so they could run the table. And my 13 year-olds were frequently pitted against high schoolers. And the folks at Sportsplex didn’t give a bleep as long as they got those team entry fees. I did force them to admit one team was cheating when I took pictures of their players with my cell phone.
- Each soccer club hires their own referees, and again, with the exception of the TCSA, they make it clear that those refs won’t be on the pitch very long if they don’t make the “right calls.” The Sockers were notorious for this. Many TCSA coaches begged the club to retaliate, but they wouldn’t. It was one of the very few times I’ve seen any youth sports club stand up for fair play.
- But let’s not get too crazy about the TCSA either! Their trainers, some of whom were amazing former soccer stars, were instructed to tell the kids they were all “A” level players regardless of the truth. It was all about keeping the cash rolling in. And as long as you had the cash, your child would be placed on a TCSA “Premier” team without any regard for their true talent level.
- Much like Lance had to dope to compete with other dopers, more than one TCSA official encouraged me to cheat to level the playing field.
- A slew of Tri-Cities Little League parents have told me that talent has no bearing on making a travel baseball team. It’s who you know, what subdivision you live in, and how much money you’re willing to put into tall the club’s various training programs.
- In all youth travel sports, coaches consistently try to steal other teams’ best players which is a blatant violation of club rules. By expanding their boundaries, all JRW did was attempt to “legalize” that kind of poaching.
And the parents couldn’t give a flying bleep about any of this. As long as the clubs continue to dangle the prospect of a college scholarship, not only are they willing to go along with all of it, but they’ll howl like stuck pigs if you dare bring any of this dysfunction to light. It’s a lot like a self-fulfilling feedback loop in which the parents, coaches, and the clubs all pretend and convince each other that everything’s alright.
The only difference between all those other Little League teams and JRW is that JRW got caught.
So the cheating doesn’t surprise me at all. What does surprise me is that someone actually had the cojones to come forward – and trust me – that Evergreen Park league VP will pay dearly for that. Because the only thing these clubs won’t put up with is “squealers.”
The reason this revelation came to light so late is, though all the local JRW league officials and coaches knew about the boundary scam, they said nothing. It took someone from another Little League organization to call them out.
In the end, we should all tip our hats to Little League International, the ruling body, who thoroughly investigated this situation and made the correct call. That doesn’t happen much in youth sports today.