Hot Sports Opinion — Little League screwed up and it’s time for a change

US Little League Champions 2014 – Mountain Ridge Las Vegas

Little League fails to manage a fundamentally flawed program and should discontinue the Little League World Series

Background: I’m a former Dallas Little League President

Little League is one of the most administratively complex sports leagues you’ll ever be a part of. It is insanely time-consuming, and in my first years of being involved, I thought the required paperwork and processes were absolutely ridiculous. However, through all that, I began to understand the underlying goals Little League was driving at, and I was won over by those principles. Without going through them all, the overriding goal is fairness; fairness in team composition, fairness in league competition, fairness in how teams from all over the world basically compete on the same basis.

You’ve noticed that it’s rare for a “big city” team to ever be represented in the Little League World Series. You’d think that was odd, but the base “unit” for a league has traditionally been around the population size of what a small town could put together for a league, say 20,000 people. While that is no longer a hard and fast rule, it is illustrative of what the leadership is after — a competition in which every league in the world has a legitimate opportunity to compete with each other, from small town to suburb to a neighborhood in a major city. Now that balance is governed more by the number of players in the league…once you reach a league size with more than 10 teams at the Little League (11-12) level, it is split, whether into divisions, or into multiple leagues.

That’s why when you consider a market like Houston, you’ll see that it is made up of 8 or more Little Leagues, each typically representing a particular neighborhood or area in the city. In Dallas, we are actually a bit of an anomaly, where Dallas Little League is actually 1 league, but with 3 divisions (each with its own All Star teams) — West (Highland Park and North Dallas), East (Lake Highlands), South (Lakewood). There’s also a West Dallas Little League, and leagues in Garland (North and South), Carrollton. So there are lots of leagues in the Dallas area.

So what’s the big deal and what went wrong?

There is ZERO possibility that a league could unwittingly submit players for All Star teams that are ineligible due to residency. You are required to provide 3 proofs of parent residency. You are required to plot the locations of those players on a league boundary map. Documents are tied back to birth certificates, and if names don’t match up of parents and kids, additional documentation is required to link the player to the guardian/parent. If you have an ineligible player, it is because you WANT to have an ineligible player. So, is the league culpable in the Jackie Robinson case (or any case)? Absolutely! It was a deliberate act to falsify boundary maps and get star players in the league.

Their are thousands of rule-abiding leagues that jump through hoops and spend an unbelievable amount of time making sure that they have their documentation in order from hundreds of parents. They work hard to provide accurate records to make sure their eligible players actually get to participate, as failure to do so results in them not getting to play. It is a big slap in their faces for a team like Jackie Robinson to get all the way to the finals and play before being found to be ineligible AFTER the fact. Think about the Las Vegas team that didn’t get to advance to the International final. What did it deprive them of? Think about the Great Lakes Regional 2nd place team that did not get to experience the Little League World Series at all, because an ineligible team took their place.

Little League

New Albany Little League Great Lakes Region Champions 2014

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While the Jackie Robinson league volunteers, coaches and parents are directly to blame, Little League International carries a lot of responsibility for this as well in my opinion. Here’s why:

There are only 2 valid explanations for the local District Administrator to not catch the league in their use of an ineligible player.

  1. Laziness — Every league’s boundary map is on record with the District Administrator (DA) and the Regional office. If a map is submitted that has been “redrawn” to show players in the boundaries, it should be caught by a competent DA.
  2. Complicitness — Every District would love to see one of their league teams do well. If a District has several leagues that are not very good, and 1 that is very good, one could see how a DA would perhaps “look the other way” to see one of his teams advance

And we see in this case that the District Administrator for that District has been removed along with people in the Jackie Robinson league. Good step.

Here’s where LL failed at higher levels and needs to do something. For a team to make it to the Little League World Series, here’s the progression of levels they have to win:

  1. Win your District tournament where you compete against other local leagues — run by the District Administrator
  2. Win a Sectional tournament in your state against other District winners
  3. Win your State tournament
  4. Win your Regional tournament — compete against 7 other State winners

That gets you IN to the LLWS where you compete against other Region winners for the American championship and finally the International Championship. So by the time you’ve made it to Regional champion, you’ve eliminated the chance for about 28 other deserving teams to advance to that level.

From the original paperwork submitted at the District level, there is not much (if any) of a re-check at the Sectional level. At State level, it should be reviewed, but I don’t know to what level of scrutiny each individual state actually does so.

Once a team reaches Regional competition, it is now squarely in the hands of a much higher level of administration in Little League — the Regional offices with paid personnel. Administrators are now getting background information and photos of players put together for television — all the things you see aired about them during broadcasts. It is at this point that absolute fine-tooth comb scrutiny should be getting performed on a team’s documents, precisely to eliminate the local league / local District incomptency or cheating. As a highly visible International organization, you REALLY want that to happen before teams start getting on television.

That’s where I think there’s been a fundamental failure…that checking is not effectively taking place at the Regional or higher level. The ESPN report says:

Little League said that it wasn’t until meetings in January that local league officials acknowledged that they knew of the violation but had never reported it to Little League International.

“Unfortunately, no allegations against Jackie Robinson West Little League were made until well after the tournament ended, contributing to the difficulty of resolving these many complex issues,” Keener said. “As an organization, Little League has faced issues similar to this in the past, and we felt that we must take the appropriate action set by that precedent.”

Allegations from other local leagues shouldn’t have to be the way this gets found out. Everything LL needs is in their hands at the Regional level to vette a team.

Little League made $25 MILLION in revenue in 2012, and likely much more since 2013 with a doubling of ESPN’s broadcast fees. Of that money, $7.5 million is paid to the 100-person staff at Williamsport headquarters and regional offices. None is paid to the over 1 million volunteers at the local level. That’s why thorough vetting of teams should be taking place at the Regional level…at that point you have paid staff running the tournament to its conclusion, not overworked volunteers at the local level.

I am tired of what I perceive as the relentless money-grab and exploitation of kids by a small, national staff who purport to be custodians of a “great American institution”. While at the same time, this staff ignores or doesn’t bother to police the abuses taking place at local levels (and I believe there is FAR FAR more abuse than sees the light of day from anecdotal stories and observations shared with me during my tenure.)

Finally, there is a fundamental conflict in the operation of Little League. It tries to do 2 things at once:

  • Be the All-American apple pie, inclusive, fair playing time, run-a-draft no team has a decided advantage, learn the game sport
  • Be a top-level competitive baseball (select) organization that has an incredibly lucrative and exploitive World Series tournament

I’ve come to believe those goals are mutually exclusive and cannot effectively be run within the same organization. If you go look at the rosters of ANY of the regional qualifying teams, you will find they are stacked with players whose resumes include 50-100+ games a year with different Select traveling teams. A Little League season is typically 12-25 games a year. It represents a blip in a Select player’s year. And a player only need play in 60% of those Little League games to qualify for “All Star” play. How well does the 65mph pitching, 6’1″ 180pd, home-run blasting, 100 games a year player fit in with little Jimmy who’s playing in his 2nd or 3rd season of Little League only baseball? He doesn’t at all. It’s almost fundamentally unsafe for those players to be on the same field. And yet that is the dichotomy Little League has created for it’s regular season teams.

That’s why Little League has become irrelevant to most Select-level players. They don’t even bother with it, nor should they really. In my view, Little League should return to its well established roots of being the place where kids learn to play the game and develop. Remove the LLWS component, keep competition at a local level and almost all of the pressure that creates the friction and abuse in the current system goes away. Once a player’s skills grow beyond that level, there are good places for them to “graduate” to and play.

In conclusion, it’s not likely the LLWS is going to go away, and with it, $7.5M in salaries voluntarily walk out the door. So if it’s going to continue…those in charge need to do their damn jobs and develop new procedures to prevent abuses in their organization.

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