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Without JRW in Title Game, Little League World Series Ratings Tumble

By Mark Konkol | September 4, 2015 8:41pm | Updated on September 8, 2015 8:32am
 The Jackie Robinson West players and coaches celebrated on their home field before a parade in their honor stepped off in 2014.
The Jackie Robinson West players and coaches celebrated on their home field before a parade in their honor stepped off in 2014.
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DNAinfo/Josh McGhee

The Little League World Series just wasn’t as popular this year without Jackie Robinson West in the finale.

More than 4.6 million people tuned into the Little League World Series finale on ESPN Sunday, a 13 percent drop in viewership compared to 2014 title game when a record-shattering 5.3 million people flipped on the tube to watch Jackie Robinson West take on South Korea, according to Nielsen.

The World Series Twitter buzz also wasn’t as loud without JRW playing in the big game.

According to Nielsen, about 2.9 people tweeted about the Little League championship compared to 3.5 million who engaged on Twitter during Jackie Robinson West’s second-place finish to South Korea in 2014, a 17-percent dip.

A lot of people think the 2014 record-setting ratings had everything to do with the heartwarming story of Jackie Robinson West, the all-African American team of players hailing from Chicago’s violent, poverty-stricken South Side who overcame all those inner-city struggles — and some stiff competition on the field — to win the 2014 U.S. Title.

And they’re probably right.

But after the games had all been played and the celebrations had long subsided, the feel-good story swiftly devolved into a familiar Chicago tragedy wrought with the kind of fraud, corruption and lies that have landed more than a couple Illinois governors behind bars.

Over time, word spread of a secret plot hatched by conspiring adults to fraudulently stack the Jackie Robinson West All-Star squad with suburban ringers. When the truth was exposed, the JRW team got stripped of the championship. And those innocent kids, once hailed as America’s darlings, were left broken hearted.

It’s difficult to determine if the scandal had anything to do with the drop in viewership and social media attention this season.

If one thing was clear, though, it's that Little League and ESPN, which paid $60 million for broadcast rights, didn’t go out of their way to mention JRW’s downfall during this year’s tournament in Williamsport, Pa.

People who were there said it seemed this year’s tournament had been nearly raked clean of all Jackie Robinson West’s little cleat marks.

On ESPN, the home viewing audience got treated to 2014 flashbacks that hardly included the JRW kids at all.

Local freelance writer Evan F. Moore, who closely covered the JRW scandal, expressed his frustration over that fact in a series of tweets.

In Williamsport — where young ball players from around the world rushed the miniature ball diamond chasing dreams that for most of them, win or lose, will never come true — the ghost of the Jackie Robinson West team showed itself only during those few moments when a team from New Albany, Ind. that lost to JRW got honored as the rightful 2014 Great Lakes Region champs, according to people who were there.

Some people might think that not talking about the cheating scandal during the Little League World Series isn’t a big deal. Others believe it’s time to let it go.

Here’s why they’re wrong.  

The sole reason why the adults running Jackie Robinson Wests got caught cheating had everything to do with a brave bunch of folks, most of them who remained anonymous, who broke the no-snitch code of silence that’s part of the local culture in many struggling South Side neighborhoods — and not just when it comes to helping cops solve shootings and murders.

After keeping quiet about what they suspected about JRW’s move to submit fraudulent boundaries in order to stack its All-Star team with ringers with the goal of winning the Little League World Series, a band of responsible adults from the neighborhood — African American people from Chicago’s South Side — spoke up.

They believed in their hearts that cheaters should never win and mustered the courage to expose the corruption others did not want to find despite the threat of public backlash, or worse, knowing the punishment, whatever it might be, would probably hurt more than just the guilty.

By letting the JRW scandal get whitewashed from Williamsport and fade from the World Series story line, the courage of those whistleblowers — and the important life lessons their actions helped reveal — vanishes, as well

In certain pockets of Chicago, looking the other away, keeping your mouth shut and shrugging your shoulders at somebody else’s troubles allows a criminal culture to continue with little fear of getting caught.

In a lot of ways, the no-snitch code is why they won’t stop shooting in Chicago.

Certainly, a youth baseball scandal isn’t as serious as murder. But there's value in teaching kids that there's honor in speaking up when they witness wrongdoing.

The problem with brushing aside the truth about JRWs cheating adults — which got recapped on ESPN as well-timed “investigative report” before the tournament started — when millions of people are watching is the loss of what could be an important teaching moment.

More than big-time broadcasting contracts and a shot for kids to play on TV, teaching life lessons is what Little League, and youth sports in general, are really about.  Or should be.

Besides, if the cheaters involved JRW scandal stand a chance to end up winners — or at least in control of a hundreds of thousands of dollars donated to the program — it sends a horrible message to kids.

Here’s the current situation: Bill Haley, the JRW treasurer and de facto leader, continues to control the more than $324,000 in donations that rolled in before anyone knew he conspired to engage in such heartbreaking fraud. More than $100,000 has been spent and at least $200,000 is in the bank, according to a Sun-Times report.

Still, people with deep pockets who donated to JRW with good intentions appear content to let Haley’s organization to keep the money on blind faith that the cash will help kids who need it.

Little League officials haven’t been clear on whether the organization will enforce its contractual right to reclaim money and property that JRW amassed while under the Little League banner if the league completely severs ties with the organization. (Currently, JRW’s Little League charter remains on administrative hold.)

Haley’s lawyer told the Sun-Times “it would be inappropriate to comment” on where JRW’s donations came from or how the money was spent. I'm not sure what that means, but I hope "inappropriate" won't also be used to describe the way the money was spent.

Victor Henderson said, “JRW plans to use its remaining funds, like it always has done, in keeping with its mission of providing a first-rate baseball experience to children on the South Side of Chicago.”

Well, this year, some JRW parents aren’t sure the league is fulfilling its mission despite its six-figure bank account.

All the kids who played for Jackie Robinson West — which remained suspended from Little League partly because Haley has refused to step down as the league treasurer — got a bit of shocking news at the end of the season.

While Haley made a fuss about dragging Little League to court — a move that ultimately ended before it began —players and their parents didn’t find out until it was too late to do anything about it that Jackie Robinson West wouldn’t field an All-Star team to play in any national tournaments at any age level, after joining the Cal Ripken/Babe Ruth organization.

Last month, one coach told me he fielded calls from some very frustrated families who wanted their money back.

You could say those parents felt their kids got cheated by an organization still flush with cash even after getting caught red-handed.

If there’s one reason to keep talking about Jackie Robinson West, it’s to make sure that doesn’t continue happen because people look the other way, keep their mouths shut and shrug their shoulders at somebody else’s troubles.

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