Chicago Youth Sports: A Culture Gone Rotten

When I first moved to Chicago in the fall of 2002, I heard whispers regarding the existence of rampant cheating within the high school programs and youth leagues of Chicago. I found it all really hard to believe until I started to experience it first-hand in the spring of 2003, my first season as a varsity high school baseball coach in Chicago. I remember not only how shocked I was that cheating actually occurred, but to the degree it was happening and the overt way it was practiced. 

I have witnessed cheating of all types – student-athletes competing for neighborhood schools without living in the neighborhood, student-athletes gaining admission to selective enrollment schools with rigorous academic requirements that non-athletes could not gain admission to, and teams dressing players for games that were not enrolled as students or who had already graduated. For years, I have been a part of games with questionable umpiring. I’m not referring to a few bad calls, as those are a part of the game, but rather I’m speaking of a consistent pattern of poor officiating that has been documented multiple times by a variety of coaches.  Examples include players being called out on strikes on strike two – not on strike three, the doctoring of scorebooks which resulted in the opponent’s best players mysteriously leading off innings when the game was on the line, balls consistently bouncing into home plate – but called strikes, sudden shrinking and/or expanding of strike zones, and the movement of foul-line cones which lengthened the field of play. I have seen kids being purposely thrown at with no consequences from umpires. I have seen coaches report false scores from games that never happened to local and state officials to increase win totals. And for years, coaches in Chicago have been getting away with it. No consequences, no investigations, nobody blowing the whistle.

Fast forward to the recent scandal involving Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West Little League Team (JR West). I remember thinking back in August that JR West winning was the worst thing that could happen to them, because Little League would be forced to investigate. As we all know, winning inherently lends itself to added scrutiny. What the coaches and parents of JR West failed to realize is that winning at the national level, as opposed to the local level, forces a heightened level of accountability people from Chicago just aren't accustomed to. Yet, because cheating is so ingrained in the culture of Chicago youth sports, in large part because coaches have been able to get away with it for so long, the coaches and parents who decided to enter Little League despite the rules probably felt they wouldn’t be challenged.

People will try to spin this in every way imaginable, but there is no getting around the facts.  And this is not the first time Little League has stripped a team of its title, so to suggest this program was targeted is a challenging argument to make. As accusations of injustice are being frivolously thrown around by local leaders such as Jesse Jackson and Father Pfleger, I can’t help but think the only injustice that occurred in this situation involved the kids from the neighborhood who couldn’t compete for the Jackie Robinson West Little League Team because their roster spots were taken by kids from outside the neighborhood. 

I can only hope that the exposure of this unfortunate situation involving JR West will lead to Chicago’s high school and youth league coaches, as well as parents and administrators, to self-reflect and clean up their act. If the primary purpose of sports is to teach life lessons, we are failing miserably here in Chicago.