BY PETER DAHL
While major media outlets give a great deal of attention to the prevalence of negativity in sports of all kinds, Little League has, in bizarre fashion, remained almost untouchable.
Floating high above the clouds of scandal that cover so many sports, the Little League World Series, held every August in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, is a burst of sunshine in what is often a dark landscape. While our other sports are rife with drug abuse, domestic violence, sexual infidelity, racism, cheating and life-threatening injuries, a baseball tournament played by tweens provides us with smiles, nostalgia, apple pie and Chevrolet. ESPN devotes hours of coverage to a children’s version of a popular professional game and is rewarded with surprisingly high rates of interest and viewership. Many viewers enjoy the bliss of the miniature ballparks and the happy-go-lucky players. The ignorance required to achieve this bliss is really quite remarkable.
ESPN’s promo for the tournament this year, featuring “Centerfield” by John Fogerty, was an idealistic, even campy trailer for the event and it was just the outermost signal of the fun, optimistic, light-hearted lens through which the worldwide leader broadcast the games to us. Year after year we get the picture of smiling, hustling, innocent kids, supported by their loving friends and family, showing great sportsmanship, win or lose. We accept the players as friendly baseball robots wearing brightly colored uniforms and mindlessly ignore the real people with real problems trotting out onto the baseball diamond.
There are kids playing in the Little League World Series that are not nice and some will not carry themselves honorably as they grow older. There are demanding, discouraging, apathetic and abusive parents in the stands (or maybe absent altogether). There are some tyrannical coaches in the dugouts. Some kids have been left off a team due to politics. Rules have been broken, money has illicitly changed hands and many feelings have been badly hurt. Not all the kids love all their teammates, nor do they look at their opponents colorblind and free from ethnocentrism. As jubilant as the winners are, the losers face the unaired agony of defeat, especially those who make an error in front of millions of television viewers. Kids will return to life outside of Williamsport, many to broken homes, some to addict parents, a few to violent neighborhoods. They will continue to exist as human beings long after their baseball career comes to an end, most likely in high school or college. All these things are part of the youth sports scene, but you will not find them on ESPN.
Instead we got city food clichés in the form of a cutesy juxtaposition of the Chicago players eagerly eyeing a deep dish pizza and the Philadelphia players vying for position near a cheesesteak. The nation got a smile from Trey Hondras, whose innocent fun fact on his stat box graphic was, “Talks to girls before games for good luck.” Mo’ne Davis, the female ballplayer from Philadelphia, captivated the country as she dominated opponents from the pitcher’s mound. The Jackie Robinson West team from Chicago provided a nice story as the first all-black team to play in the tournament in 31 years (a story that got boxed in as fun human interest rather than grounds for important discussion). We are more than willing to find stories in the Little League World Series as long as they make us smile.
In all other sports we are quick to assume the worst. If a player has a statistical surge or recovers from an injury too quickly, we consider the possibility of steroid use. We suspect any player who ends up at a major college football program must have been improperly recruited. The star players on any major college basketball team face questions about GPA. We jump on stories about drugs, sex, abuse, bigotry and discrimination, desperate to show more outrage than the person next to us. Often, this all happens at the expense of the positive stories that are ready to be told. We do this in almost every single sport except for Little League.
Perhaps I should accept coverage of the Little League World Series as a breath of fresh air and enjoy the happy nostalgia of it all. Maybe telling negative stories surrounding kids would open a Pandora’s box that would ruin the event altogether. I just know that, as it stands, we are blatantly ignoring a herd of elephants in the room.