It’s called Little League, but there’s nothing little about it.
Not the television money. Nor the ticket sales. Nor the pressure to perform on a big stage. Or the opportunity to showcase kids with big league dreams.
Youth sports are now a $15 billion industry with revenues comparable to the 32 NFL teams, and Little League International — which touts itself as the world’s largest youth sports organization — is the big dog.
All that money and attention can create an over-sized temptation to cheat.
Or so say some parents and coaches affiliated with the Indiana state champion team from New Albany. The organization was the victim of cheating four years ago, and when rumors started flying about the team that eliminated them from the playoffs last week, they responded swiftly.
This week, several people with ties to the New Albany team asked Little League Central District officials in Carmel to look into the residency of players on the Grosse Pointe Woods-Shores team from suburban Detroit. The Michigan state champs thumped New Albany 13-0 in the Great Lakes regional championship Sunday at Grand Park in Westfield, and advanced to the Little League World Series, where they begin play today.
Justin Endres, the New Albany Little League president, stressed he has no direct evidence that cheating occurred, but he wanted to make sure his kids got a fair shake. “We just forwarded the stuff on. We’re not even in the position to know,” he explained. “That’s the hard part of it. The high stakes set up an opportunity for some of this.”
Dan Bentley, a Little League coach from Michigan, told IndyStar he also sent an email to league officials requesting a review after the GPWS team won the state title.
“The only reason I did research is that when we went to the state tournament,” Bentley said, “there were so many coaches, and parents, approaching us saying, ‘Hey these guys are illegal.'”
But Bentley admits he’s not sure, either.
“It’s arguably the best team I’ve seen in Little League, that’s for gosh darn sure,” he said. “You get a team that good and there’s gonna be speculation.”
In an email response to questions from IndyStar, Grosse Pointe Woods-Shores Little League President Melissa Champine Henderson denied any wrongdoing.
“We have followed all Little League protocols and rules for player eligibility and provided all the correct and proper paperwork supporting this,” she wrote. “That paperwork has been verified by Little League at the District, State and Regional level.”
Little League International spokesman Kevin Fountain agreed: “Based on the information that has been provided, Little League International has not found any reason to deem Grosse Pointe Woods-Shores Little League ineligible from the Little League International Tournament,” he wrote in an email to IndyStar. “Should additional information become available, it will be taken under review.”
But it wouldn’t be first time a Little League team, enticed by money and fame, has used kids who’ve been recruited from outside a league’s official boundaries, or who are older than the age limit.
In 2014, the New Albany team was knocked out of the Great Lakes tournament — the path to the World Series — by the Jackie Robinson West Little League team from the south side of Chicago. The Illinois team was later stripped of its tournament wins, including the U.S. Championship it won at Williamsport, because it had recruited ringers from outside the league’s boundaries.
Memories of 2014 still linger for many in New Albany, and Sunday’s loss was like picking the scab off the old wound.
Endres, the New Albany Little League president, said he doesn’t want the concerns that have been raised about GPWS to come off like sour grapes, but added “it does hit home just because of 2014.”
New Albany isn’t the only Indiana team to have a brush with a cheating scandal.
In 2001, when a team from Brownsburg represented the Great Lakes region at the World Series, a Bronx team had to forfeit all its games after it was discovered the team’s star pitcher, Danny Almonte, was two years older than rules allowed.
In June, San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Mark Zeigler wrote about a bizarre residency dispute in which parents from one team paid “a private investigator thousands of dollars to follow kids home, snap surreptitious photos, access property records, dig up website pictures of them from the cafeteria of a school” miles from their rival Little League’s district.
“What I’ve noticed, more and more, is that youth sports are not for the kids, they’re for the adults,” Zeigler told IndyStar. “They want to be satisfied and that comes with winning and exposure.”
Bentley and others said ESPN, which paid $60 million in 2013 to televise the Little League games through 2022, has created a monster.
“It used to be neighborhood backyard kids playing Little League together. Once this thing went TV, you know, advertised, we got Williamsport on TV. Now they got the Great Lakes region on TV. It’s the tournament to play at,” Bentley said.
Youth sports have evolved into a big business — and that changes the dynamic, said Jason Sacks, vice president for business development and philanthropy with the Positive Coaching Alliance, a national nonprofit focused on improving the culture of youth sports.
“The win-at-all-costs culture is really strong right now and I think it’s because you have parents that are, maybe, trying to relive dreams through their kids or they see dollar signs of, ‘Hey, my son or daughter is really good at a sport. They might be able to go to college on a scholarship and that would be great,’ or maybe, ‘I didn’t have the success in sports but my child, I just really want them to be successful,'” Sacks said.
“I think a lot of times, parents just care so much about their kids that they may not necessarily know that their behavior or the pressure they’re putting on kids is really harming that experience.”
Sack said he will be in Williamsport for the World Series.
“Our goal of improving the culture of youth and high school sports looks a lot different than it did 20 years ago. So, I think, the position that we’re trying to take is that … ‘The horse is out of the barn’ on this — that Little League is not going to turn around next year and be like, ‘You know what, we’re not going to have games on ESPN,'” Sacks said.
Sacks said he remains confident there are ways to make sure youth sports provide the positive characteristics and outcomes that can get lost in the new dynamic.
“We get this a lot around, ‘Have we lost youth sports?'” he said. “And I don’t think we have. I think it’s just changed and I think we’re trying to evolve with that and figuring out how we can best be a part of some of these travel teams and big programs.”
In the meantime, the Grosse Pointe Woods-Shores team is in Williamsport. The New Albany boys are back at home, their amazing season finished on a sour note.
Parents and coaches in New Albany were still waiting Thursday for responses from Little League officials.
An email from the parent of one of the New Albany players explained “it has been brought to the attention of our New Albany Little League coaches and officials that many residents of (Grosse Pointe) and the surrounding little leagues and districts, that GP is compromising the integrity of Little League and that multiple complaints have been filed with little league officials in regard to GP recruitment of players from Detroit area.”
An email sent by another New Albany parent said “a Little League official came to our Coach after the Championship game to congratulate him and made the comment that Little League was looking into the makeup of the GPWS team.”
One parent closed his email with an emotional appeal.
“Please, at the very least, look at this situation closely,” he pleaded. “The tears my son shed on Sunday after the game were not from losing but from the possibility of being cheated out of his dreams of playing in Williamsport — a dream he has had since his first little league game at the age of 8 years old.”
Zeigler, the San Diego sportswriter, said it would be easy — but perhaps misguided — to call out both sides for their extreme conduct in disputes surrounding a kids’ game.
It’s a system, he said, that in some ways has become a victim of its own success. And in his opinion, the blame goes much farther than overzealous coaches and parents.
“Blame you. Blame me. Blame the rest of us for glorifying 12-year-olds whose greatest achievement might be winning the genetic lottery and hitting puberty early, for showering them with fame and adulation, for watching in sufficient numbers that ESPN paid $60 million for eight years of TV rights and will televise 233 Little League baseball and softball games this summer alone,” Zeigler wrote.
“For clicking on newspaper links. For tuning into radio interviews. For attending pep rallies before tournaments and parades after them. For treating it less like Little League than World Series.”