By Chris Hallenbrook
It’s that time of year again folks, when the vultures from Bristol, CT good folks at ESPN descend on Williamsport, PA for the Little League World Series (LLWS) and when I change the channel whenever it comes on. To get one disclaimer out of the way right off the bat, I’m not one of those people who think you shouldn’t keep score in youth sports. I think competition can play a valuable role in the development of children, teaching them to win with grace, lose with dignity and recognize that to lose is not the same things as to fail. In fact, when I played “little league” (my town was not affiliated with the national association that is Little League Baseball) I was very annoyed the years we didn’t keep score because I could count the players who crossed the plate and knew how very badly my team usually lost (trust me, losing is worse when people try to BS you that you didn’t lose). My complaints about the LLWS and the industry it has spawned have to do with the level of competition, not the existence of competition.
First of all, there is the scope of the competition. The LLWS takes teams of eleven, twelve and thirteen year olds from all over the world and has them compete in a series of ever more demanding regional, national and international tournaments until a single “world champion” is crowned. This continually elevates the pressure with each passing game, making the stakes, in terms of the level of glory being held out to the children, higher with each passing moment. Now even at that age (and younger) I loved to compete, but I also loved going out for ice cream with my coaches and teammates afterward. Here the system says, “congratulations kids, you’re national champions, now let’s gear up for another tournament.” Great achievements thereby become merely stepping stones in the quest for the elusive goal of a world championship that most will not achieve. There is no need to push these children onward and onward to their breaking point as if they are Ender Wiggin. By all means, let children play for their city title, but let it stop at that.
These problems are magnified by the fact that once the teams get to Williamsport, ESPN gets involved. ESPN means that cameras are everywhere, and they do far more than just broadcast these games on live national and international television. They bring teams onto SportsCenter (which is also aired live), play the highlights, provide fun facts about the players gathered in pregame interviews and even do postgame interviews with the key contributor from the winning team!!! In a culture that already makes individuals far too self-obsessed, ESPN seems to have found the perfect formula for creating narcissism complexes worthy of Alex Rodriguez.
Sure, ESPN has the basic human decency to not put crying children on live national television, instead only showing the celebration of the winning team, but why is it okay that they are getting to make millions of dollars off of middle school children???? And the sponsors? National brands sponsor the biggest games, such as “The United States Championship Game presented by Kellogg’s,” and we all know that corporate America wouldn’t be buying all that ad time in the ESPN broadcasts if it wasn’t profitable to do so. Now sure, I wore the names of local businesses on the back of my jersey when I played, it was how we kept the league affordable for parents, but my local sub shop wasn’t making millions of dollars off of my sweat and tears. The amount of money being made off this tournament is just perverse.
At that ladies and gentlemen, is why I refuse to watch the LLWS. I hope you’ll do the same.
I invite you to follow me on Twitter @CHallenbrook.